spelling game

Speak & Spell (toy)

The Speak & Spell was an electronic toy consisting of a speech synthesizer and a keyboard. It was introduced at the summer Consumer Electronics Show in June 1978.


The Speak & Spell was created by Paul Breedlove, an engineer with Texas Instruments during the late 1970s. Speak & Spell was the first of a three-part talking educational toy series that also included Speak & Read and Speak & Math. The Speak & Spell was sold, with regional variations, in the United States, Canada, Australia, and in Europe.

The toy was originally advertised as a tool for helping young children to become literate, learn to spell and learn the alphabet. The early Speak & Spell units were sold in 1978. Variants included the Speak & Read, which was yellow with blue and green accents and focused on reading comprehension, and the Speak & Math, which was grey with blue and orange and centered on mathematics. A French Speak & Spell, La Dictée Magique, was sold primarily in Canada, while an Italian Grillo Parlante and German Buddy were sold in their respective countries. The German Buddy is particularly rare. The American version of Speak & Spell had an American accent and American spellings, and the British version used British spellings and had a British accent.

There was another variant called Speak and Spell Compact, it was cheaper as it had no display - an expensive component. This was launched in the US only but was seen as an inferior derivative and sales were very poor. The UK was forced to take some of the excess stock, but seeing the problem this would cause the Marketing Manager (Martin Finn) had the product rebranded Speak and Write for the UK only. All existing units we recoloured blue and repackaged, and it sold well enough to clear the shelves. No more units were made of this model.

The word list used in each of the regional models is different to reflect the recommendations of educationalists in each country. The English, French, German and Italian versions were all created, by a team of non specialists, in TI's plant near Antibes, France, under the watchful eye of Larry Brantingham who had patented the underlying technology.


The display was a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD). The original Speak & Spells had raised hard-plastic keys while later units had a membrane keyboard. The Speak & Spell used the first single-chip voice synthesizer, the TI TMS5100, which utilized a 10th-order linear predictive coding (LPC) model and the electronic DSP logic.. A variant of this chip with a very similar voice would eventually be utilized in certain Chrysler vehicles in the 1980s as the Electronic Voice Alert.

Phoneme data was stored on a pair of 128 Kbit metal gate PMOS ROMs. 128 Kbit was a very large capacity ROM in the late 1970s. An additional memory module could be plugged into a slot in the battery compartment and selected via a button on the keyboard.

A later model, the Super Speak & Spell, had a much slimmer case and an LCD screen rather than a VFD screen.

The unit could use either 4 "C" batteries or 6 volt DC power adapter with positive tip polarity.

Games included

Speak & Spell had five built-in learning games: Spell, Say It, Secret Letter, Mystery Code, and Word. Spell is the classic word spelling game, wherein the participant must spell ten words after hearing them "spoken" by the unit. The Speak & Spell also had the ability to expand its vocabulary using expansion modules that plugged into a slot near the battery compartment. One such expansion module was a tie-in for the toy's notable appearance in the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and asked young spellers to try such words as "geranium" and "extraterrestrial."

The secret code works by matching up two sets of the alphabet, slightly askew. P and Q match up and run in opposite directions:


Home computer adaptions

Several commercial retailers offered hardware and software which allowed home computers to inferface with the Speak & Spell's hardware and access it's capabilities.

Percom Data Company offered a PC Card called "Speak-2-Me-2" which installed into the battery compartment of the Speak & Spell, and connected via cable to a TRS-80.

East Coast Micro Products offered hardware to inferface 6502-based computers such as the Commodore 64 and Apple IIe with the Speak & Spell. A program called "S.peek.uP" was marketed which could control this hardware.

The February 1983 issue of Computers & Electronics contained instructions for interfacing a Speak & Spell with a Sinclair ZX-80 a Sinclair ZX-81, or a Timex 1000.

Texas Instruments itself later adapted the Speak & Spell's technology into a speech synthesizer accessory for it's popular TI-99/4A computer.

In popular culture

The Speak & Spell shows up from time to time as a pop-culture reference in various television shows and game shows. A Speak & Spell has a prominent role as a key component of the alien creature's homebuilt interstellar communicator in the Steven Spielberg motion picture E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Speak & Spell also appears in the movie Toy Story.

Some musicians have used the Speak & Spell in their compositions, sometimes through the use of Circuit Bending. Examples include TLC (Fanmail), Family Force 5 (Cadillac Phunque), Limp Bizkit (Behind Blue Eyes), CocoRosie (Animals), COIL, Scrabbel (Robot Song), LFO, 808 State, Experimental Audio Research, Gym Class Heroes, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Polysics, Leftfield, Beck, Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares, Doormouse, Moog Cookbook, Meat Beat Manifesto, Hexstatic, Darren Emerson, Freezepop, Optiganally Yours, Sigh, Win, Circle Research, and the Artificial Sea. Also used by Claude Woodward (The Sonic Manipulator) Two tracks on Eisbrecher's 2008 album "S%C3%BCnde" include Speak & Spell excerpts.

British synthpop band Depeche Mode entitled their 1981 debut album Speak & Spell.

Brian Duffy, with the modified toy orchestra creates any vocal parts of songs using a Speak & Spell.

Comedian Dane Cook impersonates a Speak & Spell on his album Harmful If Swallowed, joking about how the voice sounded like the toy was possessed.

French musician and electronic music godfather Jean Michel Jarre, has used the S&S sound in the track "Touch to Remember" from his latest album Téo & Téa.

German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk use a Speak & Spell in several songs on their 1981 album Computer World.

The Speak & Spell is referenced several times on Homestar Runner. In one toon, a character has built a robot made out of a box of Grape Nuts and a Speak & Spell.

Speak and Spell was also used by the character Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist 3.

In the Bemani song "Look to the Sky" by Sota Fujimori, a Speak & Spell can be heard spelling "S-O-T-A" just before the song's chorus.


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