Friday, November 4, 2016

Atari Says Its First Word

Table of Contents ]

Atari Says Its First Word Ad
Antic Magazine
Volume 1, Number 3
August 1982
Page 37

This Atari Says Its First Word ad appeared in Volume 1, Number 3 issue of Antic magazine in August 1982. The ad tries to persuade readers to purchase the Voice Box speech synthesizer by The Alien Group for the Atari 400/800 home computers. The inverse of this ad appears on the pages of SoftSide magazine in Vol. 5, No. 10.

The Voice Box was a simple to use speech synthesizer for the Atari home computers. It plugged directly into the Atari 400/800 computer's serial port and output speech directly to the TV or Monitor speaker. No additional speaker, amplifier, power supply, special interfaces, or cables were needed.

Voice Box
Speech Synthesizer
The Alien Group

There is a review of the Voice Box starting on page 50 of Volume 1, Number 4 of Antic magazine in October 1982. On the facing page of the Voice Box review, The Alien Group announced a contest for the best game program submitted for use with their Voice Box product.

Voice Box Contest
Antic Magazine
Volume 1, Number 4
October 1982
Page 51

The contest mentions:
"Win $5,000 price -- plus royalties -- for the best Atari 400/800 game using the VOICE BOX.  Deadline: May 30, 1983.  Write for contest details."
What did the the contest details state? Did anyone actually win this contest?  The following year when Voice Box II came out, it included a few sample programs. Maybe one of those was the winner.

There is also a quick blurb about the Voice Box written by Ed Picciuti on the front page of the October 1982 issue of the Jersey Atari Computer Group (JACG) Newsletter stating that "At the September meeting we listened to the voice synthesizers, but human they are not. The Voice Box from Alien Group worked the best in my opinion..."  In the following issue of the JACG Newsletter, in November 1982, there is a more detailed review of the Voice Box by columnist and JACG member Arthur Leyenberger which states in part "...Although the synthesized speech produced by the Voice Box will never be mistaken for a human voice, its quality and understandably are better than most synthesizers that currently exist..."

Beginning on page 56 of the August 1984 issue of Family Computing magazine, there is an article by Louis R. Wallace titled "Buyer's Guide To Speech Synthesizers - Turn Your Computer Into A Talking Machine" that covers the Alien Group Voice Box as well. Family Computing was a computer magazine published by Scholastic, Inc. It covered all of the major U.S. home computer platforms of the day. The first issue of the magazine appeared in September 1983. The final issue was published in April 2001.

In Germany, Atari distributed the Voice Box using its own packaging.

German Alien Group Voice Box
Distributed by Atari

The Technology

The Alien Group Voice Box uses the Votrax SC-01A Speech Synthesizer chip to produce speech. There is an ad for the Votrax SC-01A chip on page 32 of the November/December 1982 issue of Robotics Age magazine. You can find more information on the SC-01A Speech Synthesizer chip and Related ICs on this page.

For more detailed information on the Votrax SC-01A Speech Synthesizer chip and speech synthesizers in general including projects you can build, find a copy of the book Chip Talk: Projects In Speech Synthesis written by Dave Prochnow and published by TAB Books Inc.

Chip Talk: Projects In Speech Synthesis
Written By Dave Prochnow
Published by TAB Books, Inc.

Years Later

For quite sometime, I was searching for The Alien Group Voice Box to add to my collection. They don't show up very often. In April 2014, I spotted a Voice Box that was listed for sale on eBay. The eBay listing described the item...
"Appears clean and intact. Stored in its original box with original papers and software. ... The Alien Group debuted the VOICEBOX Speech Synthesizer for the ATARI computers in 1982. The device plugs into the serial port of the ATARI 400/800 and produces sound through the from the TV/monitor. The Voicebox also features a knob which allows the user to control the speed and pitch of the generated speech. This vintage piece comes with original packaging, papers, and software and appears extremely well-preserved for a 32-year-old piece of classic computer technology."
Along with a photographs of The Alien Group Voice Box hardware in the eBay listing, there were also a few photographs of the accompanying documentation. What really caught my eye was the content and the dates on the documentation. One photograph, in particular, showed some handwritten instructions on a sheet of graph paper with the date of July 16, 1982 clearly visible. After some quick research, the earliest ad that I could find was the August 1982 Atari Says Its First Word ad in Antic magazine, and the earliest review that I could find was the aforementioned review by Benton J. Elkins staring on page 50 in the Volume 1, Number 4 issues of Antic magazine in October 1982.

Based on my research and the evidence at hand, I believed this to be a prototype or early production model that was sent from The Alien Groups offices in Manhattan, NY to a manufacturing/duplication facility in southern California to possibly produce cassette tape media of the Voice Box software.

The eBay auction ended on April 14th, 2014. As the winning bidder, I purchased this Voice Box from a seller located in Ojai, California. The selling price was $220 plus $10 shipping. Note that the original selling price of this item in 1982 dollars was $169.00. The listing had quite a bit of interest as the item had 30 bids. 

eBay Listing

I received the package a week or so later. The Voice Box came in its original packing box. In addition to the hardware, there were four pages of handwritten notes. There were also ten pages of typed documentation. I carefully removed the staples and scanned the sheets of yellowing paper to make them available to others in this thread on the AtariAge website and also archived them on I then placed the individual sheets in sheet protectors. Also included in the package were four 5 1/4 floppy diskettes with The Alien Group Voice Box software.

Some Of The Handwritten Notes
(Contrast Adjusted And Cropped)
A few months later, I contacted the seller to see if he had any further knowledge on the history of this particular item. My email stated, in part:
2014-08-03 08:40 AM PDT 
I purchased the Alien Group Voice Box from you back in April, 2014.  As you may know, this appears to be an early production unit that was sent from the developer (Alien Group) in New York to a cassette software duplication company (Custom Dup?) in July, 1982, based upon the documentation and correspondence included with the hardware.
In the process of archiving this information and filling in any more of the story for the Atari community, can you tell me how you came in possession of the hardware and documentation?  Did you work for the software duplication company? Any bit of information that could help fill in the blank from 1982 to today would be great. Thanks for saving this little piece of Atari history.
The response from the seller, in part:
2014-08-03 09:13 AM PDT 
We mostly concentrate on books, so we visit estates and sales to get them in reasonable volume. This came in with a box that I put together from a sale on Calle Mayor here in the Hollywood Riviera section of Torrance (Redondo Beach mailing) CA. I thought the package looked interesting and inquired about it from the gentleman selling the books, but he could tell me absolutely nothing. Sorry that I can provide you no history other than location of acquisition. I remember the progress of that auction--still a little bit in awe that it commanded such interest!
Oh well, it was worth a try!

The Alien Group

The Voice Box was designed and manufactured in Manhattan, New York by a company calling itself The Alien Group. According to the handwritten notes that I received with the Voice Box, The Alien Group listed its address as the 5th Floor of 27 W. 23rd Street in Manhattan. The contact name listed was Mike Matthews.

The Alien Group Letter Head
Mike Matthews' Signature

The Alien Group and the Voice Box almost didn't happen. In January 1982, Mike Matthews and his company Electro-Harmonix was temporarily forced out of business due to union thuggery in Manhattan. An article, titled "Sign Up --- Or Else!" written by Randy Fitzgerald, about Mike's company and the union's tactics against it was published on page 111 in the August 1982 issue of Reader's Digest magazine.

The same "face" logo used in the Voice Box ad above is still visible all over the Electro-Harmonics website and products today.  

In January, 2006, Mike Matthews, as President and Founder of Electro-Harmonics, sat down for an interesting recorded interview with the National Association of Music Merchants.

Mike Matthews
Electro-Harmonix/The Alien Group

Thanks to Atari Alumni Tim Boehlert for helping to fill in the blanks about Mike Matthews and The Alien Group!

Testing The Voice Box

When I finally got around to testing the Voice Box, I first tried it with an Atari 800XL, an Atari 1050 disk drive and a Commodore 1702 monitor. Following the instructions in the documentation, I was able to load the BASIC program from disk, but once the menu displayed, the computer would lock up.

I then tried using two different versions of Atari Translator, a piece of software that makes an Atari 800XL work more like an Atari 400/800, but it still didn't work.

Finally, to get it working, I switched out the Atari 800XL for an Atari 800 and that seem to do the trick.

If you're interested in experimenting with a product similar in functionality to the Voice Box, try the SpeakJet chip. The SpeakJet chip can be put on a breadboard and hooked up to an Ardunio, Raspberry PI or even, dare I say, an Atari Home Computer.

2018-04-16 Update: Kevin Savetz, one of the hosts of the ANTIC Atari 8-bit Podcast, interviewed Mike Matthews on November 13, 2017. The interview was released as ANTIC Interview 332 - Mike Matthews, Alien Group Voice Box on 2018-04-16.

-- @BillLange1968

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