Chip Hall of Fame: Texas Instruments TMC0281 Speech Synthesizer

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

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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.

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.

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