Chip Hall of Fame: Texas Instruments TMC0281 Speech Synthesizer

The world’s first speech synthesizer on chip—and accidental supporting star of E.T.

1 min read
Die image of TMC0281 Speech Synthesizer

If it weren't for the TMC0281, E.T. would've never been able to “phone home." That's because the TMC0281, the first single-chip speech synthesizer, was the heart (or should we say the mouth?) of Texas Instruments' Speak & Spell learning toy. In Steven Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster movie, the eponymous flat-headed alien hacks the toy to build an interplanetary communicator. (For the record, E.T. also uses a coat hanger, a coffee can, and a circular saw.) Today, we're increasingly accustomed to our consumer electronics talking to us; the TMC0281 was the first step toward our world of ubiquitous synthesized speech.

TMC0281 Speech Synthesizer

Manufacturer: Texas Instruments

Category: Amplifiers and Audio

Year: 1978

Released in 1978, the TMC0281 produced speech using a technique called linear predictive coding; the sound emerges from a combination of buzzing, hissing, and popping. It was a surprising solution for something deemed “impossible to do in an integrated circuit," Gene A. Frantz told IEEE Spectrum. Frantz, one of the four engineers who designed the toy, retired from TI in 2013. Variants of the TMC0281 were used in Atari arcade games and Chrysler's K-cars. In 2001, TI sold its speech-synthesis chip line to Sensory, which discontinued it in late 2007. But if you ever need to place a very, very-long-distance phone call, you can find Speak & Spell units in excellent condition on eBay for about US $50.

Photo: Gene Frantz/Texas Instruments

Gene Frantz, Richard Wiggins, Paul Breedlove, and Larry Branntingham were the creators of the TMC0281-powered Speak & Spell toy.

The Conversation (0)

How Ted Hoff Invented the First Microprocessor

Hoff thought designing 12 custom chips for a calculator was crazy, so he created the Intel 4004

14 min read
How Ted Hoff Invented the First Microprocessor

The rays of the rising sun have barely reached the foothills of Silicon Valley, but Marcian E. (Ted) Hoff Jr. is already up to his elbows in electronic parts, digging through stacks of dusty circuit boards. This is the monthly flea market at Foothill College, and he rarely misses it.

Ted Hoff is part of electronics industry legend. While a research manager at Intel Corp., then based in Mountain View, he realized that silicon technology had advanced to the point that, with careful engineering, a complete central processor could fit on a chip. Teaming up with Stanley Mazor and Federico Faggin, he created the first commercial microprocessor, the Intel 4004.

Keep Reading ↓Show less