There are few voices more iconic than Stephen Hawking’s. But not many people know the true story of how one of the world’s most recognisable voices came to exist.
After having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease – also called ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease – aged just 21 in 1963, Hawking’s speech began to deteriorate in the 1970s, and by the latter stages of the decade the physicist struggled to be understood by anyone other than his closest family and friends. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, after he permanently lost the ability to speak following an emergency tracheotomy procedure, that Hawking began looking into alternative, computerised modes of speech, including the computer-generated text-to-speech programs that would eventually come to be forever associated with him.
During his research, Hawking came across the work of an MIT scientist named Dennis Klatt. Klatt was a pioneer in the development of computer speech algorithms, and the brains behind one of the world’s first text-to-speech generators: the DECTalk.
In 1987, an early version of the DECTalk was given to Hawking, and he’s used the system ever since. The iconic Americanised speech that came to be indelibly associated with the ‘A Brief History of Time‘ author was based on the system’s default built-in voice, known as ‘Perfect Paul’.
In a touching twist, it turns out ‘Perfect Paul’ was created using the voice recordings of Dennis Klatt himself, with the MIT scientist contributing more than 300 recordings of his own speech to be used by the DECTalk. Klatt also created two other voices: ‘Beautiful Betty’, based on his wife, and ‘Kit the Kid’, based on his young child. Hawking quickly became attached to the new voice, and in 1988 decided to keep ‘Perfect Paul’ as his signature sound.
Sadly, Klatt passed away just a year later from cancer, and it’s thought that the pair never got to meet. Hawking would go on to live for another 30 years, and in that time received several upgrades to the computer systems responsible for translating his movements into words.
Yet the trademark voice remained the same, with Hawking each time refusing the offer to upgrade. It’s not clear whether Hawking kept the voice in a deliberate tribute to his friend, or whether he merely didn’t want to give up his now-iconic sound, but until his death in 2015, the world’s most famous scientist made sure the man who gave him a voice would never be forgotten.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]