How Did Stephen Hawking Talk?

July 15, 2023
David Sunnyside

When he was 22, famous British physicist Stephen Hawking contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and doctors gave him only two years to live. But he defied medical expectations and went on to become one of the world's most celebrated scientists, writing dozens of books and making new discoveries about the nature of the universe.

In his book A Brief History of Time, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, Hawking explains how he was able to keep going after losing his voice to the disease. He explains that after suffering from pneumonia in 1985, he needed an emergency tracheotomy. This left him unable to speak and forced him to use a speech-generating device. It was a clumsy-looking machine that allowed him to select words by moving the muscles in his cheek, and the device would then convert those movements into sound.

According to a 2014 article in Wired, a Cambridge University colleague named Martin King helped Hawking get the best out of the device. He contacted an industrial designer, Ray Kurzwell, who developed early speech synthesizers that could transform text into sound. These devices, known as MITalk, KlatTalk, or DECtalk, were clunky and resembled a computer keyboard but they worked, and helped Hawking to communicate with the outside world.

Hawking used this system for over three decades, during which he wrote countless books on cosmology and black holes. His unique, computer-generated voice became one of the most recognizable inflections on Earth, and bridged the gap between renowned science and popular literature.

David Sunnyside
Co-founder of Urban Splatter • Digital Marketer • Engineer • Meditator
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram