As a child of the 80′s, the knowledge that everything was slowly becoming digital (well, digital for the decade) was swallowed with my morning cereal. This movement would take over watches, coffee makers, and educational toys.
I think you guys know which educational toy in particular that I’m going to talk about:
Its reddish-orange plastic case couldn’t be missed. The letters were arranged in alphabetical order (QWERTY was probably to be saved for typing class in middle school [and yes, that was an elective back in my day]), with the vowels highlighted in bright yellow keys. Blueish-green capital letters popped up on a dark screen, greeting you with the simple phrase, “HELLO.”
I received my first Speak & Spell either for Christmas or for my birthday. This was the closest thing to having your own computer, and the fact that it ran on batteries made it even more exciting: I wouldn’t be bound by the limits of an electrical cord. Its harsh electronic voice threw me off, however, and I was weary whenever it asked me to spell a word I didn’t know. What made it worse was the scolding tone it would take when, after the third and final try, I couldn’t spell a word correctly (it didn’t matter that you couldn’t understand what word it was asking you to spell). Even my parents would get frustrated at the machine’s pronunciation, and they were working with a vocabulary list that was aimed at first graders.
S&S Voice: Spell *comuter mumblings.*
Parent: *types out a word*
S&S Voice: No, try again.
Parent: *hits the repeat key a couple of times before typing out a different form of the previous word*
S&S Voice: No, try again.
Parent: *frustrated beyond belief and types out a word*
S&S Voice: That is incorrect. The correct spelling is *spells a word that you never would have guessed with its pronounciation skills*
I believe this toy also offered the option of purchasing other cartridges to “upgrade” the programs. At first my parents were all for it, but when they discovered the price for each one (a shocking $40, if I remember correctly), they figured I’d get a good start with what the machine could offer.
Even though my Speak & Spell’s voice scared me, I got a kick out of trying to get it to say words that weren’t pre-programmed into its memory. Nothing too dirty, mind you – it was enough to try and get the voice to say “poop,” “weenie,” and “butt.” (This is probably on par for boys in being able to get “boobs” to show up on a calculator.)
I don’t remember that commercial at all, but way to go with the addition of the Cos! And as much as I enjoyed my Speak & Spell, I don’t recall ever bringing it to bed with me. My Glo Worm perhaps, but not the Speak & Spell.
This educational toy also had two sister products: Speak & Math and Speak & Read. I owned neither of them, but secretly wanted the Speak & Math for its pleasant blue color scheme.
The most famous moment the Speak & Spell probably ever had was featured in 1982′s E.T.: a Speak & Spell was rigged to make up a transmitter so that the alien might be able to return home. All Elliot used was a portable turntable, a bunch of cables, and the Speak & Spell and voila! An intergalatic transmitter. I was intrigued by the possibility of turning my own machine into a makeshift telegraph, but since my geek skills weren’t that strong yet, I put it off in the realm of almost-but-not-quite make-believe.
Speak & Spell is a thing of the past, but it did give me a slight head-start on spelling. A big Thank You goes out to those four guys pictured at the start of this post from me and the rest of the Pop Bunker crew.