The Speak & Spell is one electronic toy that anyone old enough to remember the original theatrical release of E.T. will definitely remember, if only because the film used one to great effect when E.T. builds his device to communicate with his spaceship.
Created by Texas Instruments in 1978, the Speak & Spell became one of the most recognisable and popular educational toys during the 1980s. As its name suggests, it was intended to help children learn how to spell. Spelling is one of those areas that was hard to turn into a toy, since it’s not like you could print “Spell Librarian” on a card and give it to a child, since they’d then have the correct spelling right there in front of them. Again, as the name suggests, this problem was solved by making the toy speak.
Speak & Spell used a technique called speech synthesis in order to make itself heard. This was a very new area of technology back when the toy was created and was not without its flaws (indeed, even today synthesised speech is quite often blatantly obvious due to mispronounced words) so whilst it was incredibly clever, it was also not exactly that easy to be able to make out what word the device was actually asking you to spell. You often got quite a few wrong answers simply because you were entering the correct spelling of the wrong word.
If you want to hear what I’m talking about then head over to the Speak & Spell Online site, which features an emulator of the Speak & Spell which whilst it may not be functionally complete (its missing game modes for example) it sounds exactly like the original.
This little problem didn’t stop the toy doing very well indeed, and it lasted right into the Nineties. It was also successful outside of the USA because it had been given a modular design. Cartridges containing new libraries of words could be plugged into the unit, and cartridges were also made for languages other than English. Other languages that were maded available were French, Spanish, German, Italian and, perhaps surprisingly, Japanese!
The Speak & Spell also gave rise to two other similar products. First there was the Speak & Math (or Speak & Maths if you’re British) which took the same speech synthesis technology and applied it to mathematics. The Speak & Math looked almost identical to the Speak & Spell except it was grey instead of orange, and obviously had number keys instead of letters.
The Speak & Read (which I must admit I don’t ever remember seeing) aimed to help children learn to read, and looked even more like the original Speak & Spell, except for its colour scheme, as it was yellow rather than orange.
In later years the toys were redesigned and given a new screen, replacing the old original pocket calculator style green segmented display with a black and white LCD version. The toys were also made a lot thinner in the process, but somehow the redesign lost a lot of the charm of the original.