Smart assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are always ready to respond to our beck and call, but talking electronics, particularly those with convincing human voices, are a fairly recent innovation. The earliest talking devices sounded like something straight out of nightmarish science fiction, but that didn’t stop me from being fascinated by a peculiar talking pyramid from the ‘80s whose sole purpose was to save you from having to read a clock.
As a child of the ‘80s, my earliest experiences with electronics that could talk came from movies and video games. The robots in Star Wars, like C3P-O and R2-D2, seemed innocent enough, but that was because their voices were either provided by a human performer, or a bunch of bleeps and bloops edited together in a way that made the robots seem friendly and approachable. By comparison, truly artificial voices—those generated by a computer—deeply creeped me out, and as a young boy I can remember deliberately avoiding going any where near arcades because of a game called Berzerk which featured robots yelling menacing phrases like ”Get the humanoid!” in unsettling synthesized voices.
I came to associate the cold, emotionless delivery of the earliest talking electronics with evil robots and computers whose only goal was to wipe out humanity, and it led to an incident in the early ‘80s where my uncle was showing off his new car and encouraged me to climb into the driver’s seat. Little did I know that it was one of the first vehicles that could talk, with warnings about lights being left on and seatbelts not buckled, and as soon as it started speaking to me I jumped out of the car as fast as I could and bolted into the house where I knew a car couldn’t reach me.
It was an irrational fear, but as far as my young mind was concerned, nothing good could come from a device that could talk. That is, until I was introduced to a weird pyramid-shaped alarm clock that Seiko released in 1984.
Unlike most grandparents who tend to shy away from the latest and greatest electronic devices and pine for ‘simpler times’, my grandmother was genuinely fascinated with the progress of technology, even if she didn’t understand it and her mastery of modern electronics ended somewhere near using the TV remote to “watch Comcast.” Having moved from Poland to the US at a young age, she maintained her fascination with the world around her and a passion for learning throughout her entire life, even though she never had the opportunity for higher learning. As my interest in electronics grew, she would always respond with a genuinely interested and impressed, “wow, those computers!” whenever I told her about the latest and greatest tech.
It wasn’t uncommon for my grandmother to receive novelty gadgets for gifts as a result, and one of those was a bedside clock that absolutely didn’t look the part. Instead of releasing