The Man Who Takes Care of Stephen Hawking's Voice Speaks

By Veronique Greenwood | January 3, 2012 11:59 am


Cosmologist Stephen Hawking‘s voice is quite distinctive: the robotic monotone, emanating from an electronic synthesizer he’s used since getting a tracheotomy, is instantly identifiable. But as his neuromuscular disease progresses, and as the technology he’s using grows increasingly obsolete, his personal voice technician has to devise more and more workarounds. Sam Blackburn, who’s occupied the position since 2006, is now moving on, and the New Scientist spoke to him about what the job entails. Blackburn says:

I guess the most interesting thing in my office is a little grey box, which contains the only copy we have of Stephen’s hardware voice synthesiser. The card inside dates back to the 1980s and this particular one contains Stephen’s voice. There’s a processor on it which has a unique program that turns text into speech that sounds like Stephen’s, and we have only two of these cards. The company that made them went bankrupt and nobody knows how it works any more. I am trying to reverse engineer it, which is quite tricky.

Can’t you update it with a new synthesiser?
No. It has to sound exactly the same. The voice is one of the unique things that defines Stephen in my opinion. He could easily change to a voice that was clearer, perhaps more soothing to listen to – less robotic sounding – but it wouldn’t be Stephen’s voice any more.

Blackburn goes on to describe how exactly Hawking types in his words—with a muscle in his cheek—and how when he finally loses control of those muscles, the only other options will be using eye tracking or brain scanning. Blackburn’s successor in the job, which requires about three months of foreign travel a year and the ability to work with electronics that lack any documentation or support, will likely be involved in that switch.

Image courtesy of Doug Wheller / Wikimedia Commons

  • Michael Minnick

    Is the company SpeechPlus? I worked for them in that era as a firmware engineer.

  • Kip Koehler

    Steven has been an inspiration to us all. To continue on with such a debilitating disease is beyond measure. Sam Blackburn has been a saint.

  • Richard Dinning

    I’m sorry, but it doesn’t sound that complex to record Stephen’s voice as it is, then analyse the frequencies with a frequency analyzer and then program a modern voice synthesizer to reproduce those frequencies.

    I suspect it would take a some time to get it exactly right, if that’s what you’re going for but all it would take is the right sound engineer and money. If he doesn’t have the money, I’m sure thousands would contribute if he made an appeal.

  • Iain

    Well, I don’t care if it’s his voice or not, his ideas are what count.

  • john

    how are the sounds generated by a synthesizer “his voice”. seems “his voice” is a group of sounds designed by someone/thing else that someone CLAIMS belongs to hawking.
    the voice originates in hawking’s typing. therefore, the typing itself is also “his voice.”
    the sad thing is that if someone doesn’t act pronto he could loose “his voice”.
    until someone/thing makes a ” new voice” for him.
    good luck

  • Gunnar

    It’s too bad that we can’t yet halt or reverse the progress of his neuromuscular disease. What progress is being made on that? I agree with Iain that it would be better to equip him with a new and clearer voice than for him wind up with no voice at all. By now, we should also be getting closer to being able to decode the electrical activity of his brain and convert it directly into intellible speech, shouldn’t we?

  • Terry

    I am in agreement with Richard. As cutting-edge as the technology was in the ’80’s, it is so far obsolete now, it’s pathetic. Instead of wasting time trying to reverse engineer the dinosaur, use up-to-date software & synthesizers to get a new ‘voice’. I have a text-to-speech synthesizer on my laptop that was downloaded as freeware that is very close to the same ‘voice’. It should not be that difficult to get Stephen updated with new technology & yet keep the same voice we have all come to recognize.

  • Bob Snyder

    @john, You should look up the definitions of loose and lose someday. Also, it is “his voice” in the sense that when anyone hears it, they think of Stephen Hawking. It is distinctly “his voice.” I am sorry if you fail to comprehend the difference between possession and perception in this article.

  • TerryS.

    Seems like this is a story about nothing. I’m sure if some people put their minds to it (instead of only Sam) we’d have a solusion quickly. Just think, he’s only occupied the position for ~5 years.

  • lawrence mwangi

    Its our prayers that there will be smooth transition Hawking is a special gift to humanity and Science..Has inspired millions by his intelligence, courage and enthusiasm

  • Gunnar

    @Bob Snyder, I agree that it is important to preserve the voice that has become so identified with Stephen Hawking, if at all possible, but I still think that even providing him with a new (and perhaps, clearer voice) is better than losing his ability to speak altogether.

    I have also noticed (as you have) that too many people (even some obviously articulate and well informed people whose views I highly respect, who one would think should know better), and who blog in the internet, mix up and improperly use “lose” and “loose” and also “to” and “too” and even “there”, “their” and “they’re.” Even more surprising to me is how many otherwise seemingly well-educated bloggers seem to think that the past tense forms of the verbs “to lead” and “to mislead” are spelled the same way as their present tense forms.

  • Abhijeet Subhash Joshi

    Dear Michael Minnick, We would like to know if you make any progress in helping get processor programme reverse engineered. Could you please comment here if you make any headway in it. Thanks.

  • http://discovermagazine Jenise

    Stephen Hawkins is an amazing individual. He deserves to have his voice. He has lost the ability of most other aspects of his body. I understand why he might want to hang on to that. Perhaps an appeal for some of the scientists that worked at the now closed down plant would help. You’ve done a great job of ensuring he maintains his voice.

  • Sandra


    You can’t even spell “solution” so don’t try and claim that the guys that work with Stephen Frickin’ Hawking don’t know what they’re doing.


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