In December 1845, Joseph Faber exhibited his "Wonderful Talking Machine" at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia. This machine, as recently described by writer David Lindsay, consisted of a bizarre-looking talking head that spoke in a "weird, ghostly monotone" as Faber manipulated it with foot pedals and a keyboard.
Just prior to this public exhibition, Joseph Henry visited Faber's workshop to witness a private
demonstration. Henry's friend and fellow scientist, Robert M. Patterson, had tried to drum up financial support for Faber, a beleaguered German immigrant struggling to earn a living and
learn how to speak English. Henry, who was often asked to distinguish fraudulent from
genuine inventions, agreed to go with Patterson to look at the machine. If an act of
ventriloquism was at work, he was sure to detect it.
Instead of a hoax, which he had suspected, Henry found a "wonderful invention" with a
variety of potential applications. "I have seen the speaking figure of Mr. Wheatstone of
London," Henry wrote in a letter to a former student, "but it cannot be compared with
this which instead of uttering a few words is capable of speaking whole sentences
composed of any words what ever."
Henry observed that sixteen levers or keys "like those of a piano" projected sixteen
elementary sounds by which "every word in all European languages can be distinctly
produced." A seventeenth key opened and closed the equivalent of the glottis, an
aperture between the vocal cords. "The plan of the machine is the same as that of the
human organs of speech, the several parts being worked by strings and levers instead
of tendons and muscles."