History

Speak & Math (or, in some territories, Speak & Maths) is an educational toy created by Texas Instruments in 1980 as a follow-up to their successful Speak & Spell. Texas Instruments capitalised on the "Speak &" brand and produced this companion device to aid numeracy and logic skills.

Appearance

Speak & Math is superficially similar to its older brother - it has the same rectangular shape and carrying handle at the top. Where Spell is a lurid orange, Math is a more sedate grey-blue, perhaps a reflection of the slightly older target market (ages 6 to 12). The membrane keyboard is different, of course, featuring a numeric keypad and mathematical symbols, instead of Spell's letters.

The display is a blue VFD, a single row of 14-segment-display characters. The unit's main way of communicating is, of course, speech. It talks in a deep voice, with an American accent and, to my youthful ear, brusque and slightly intimidating tone. The speech is electronic and clipped. It's not technically a "synthetic voice" - T.I. hired a radio announcer to record the various speech fragments, and then digitised them.

Behaviour

It's perhaps disingenuous to suggest that Speak & Maths actually teaches numeracy skills. What it does is test them. It has a variety of games, mostly taking the form of a five-question quiz. The unit speaks the questions out loud, and the user enters their answer. You're allowed one mistake on each question ("WRONG, TRY AGAIN") before you're told "THAT'S RIGHT" or, curtly, and, frankly, terrifyingly, "THAT'S INCORRECT, THE CORRECT ANSWER IS..."

The games

Each game comes with three difficulty levels. Level 1 is trivial, level 3 sometimes requires a sheet of paper and skill at long division.

Each game has its own audio sting! When you select the game, the sting for that game (a weird two-second electronic warble) announces the name of the game, as if it's a round in a gameshow. It's terrific.

Solve It

Straightforward maths questions, displayed on the screen. Solve It has five sub-modes: division, subtraction, multiplication, addition, and "MIX IT", which is all of the above.

Audio sting: Boing, boing, daboing!

Example L1 question: "THREE MINUS THREE IS WHAT?"

Example L2 question: "NINETY-TWO TIMES TWENTY IS WHAT?"

Example L3 question: "FOUR HUNDRED SIXTY-TWO DIVIDED BY FORTY-TWO IS WHAT?"

It's notable how clearly the announcer pronounces the "H" in "WHAT".

Word Problems

More abstract questions, nothing displayed on the screen.

Audio sting: Squonky squinky squonky squink!

Example L1 question: "FIVE TEN TWENTY TWENTY-FIVE... WHAT IS LEFT OUT?"

Example L2 question: "FIND THE SUM OF TWO PLUS THREE PLUS SEVEN"

Example L3 question: "EIGHTY-ONE DIVIDED BY WHAT NUMBER EQUALS NINE?"

Greater Than / Less Than

The user must indicate which of two terms, displayed on the screen, is greater.

Audio sting: Plinky plink! Ooblyooo.

Example L1 question: "ELEVEN MINUS THREE IS GREATER THAN, OR LESS THAN, TWELVE MINUS TWO?"

Example L2 question: "FIVE HUNDRED EIGHTY THREE IS GREATER THAN, OR LESS THAN, FIVE THOUSAND EIGHTY THREE?"

Example L3 question: "SEVENTY TIMES EIGHT IS GREATER THAN, OR LESS THAN, 500?"

When the programmers were loading the radio announcer's recorded speech phrases into the system, they found they were missing the phrase "IS GREATER THAN, OR LESS THAN", so this phrase is spoken by a programmer doing his best radio announcer impersonation. Through the electronic compression, you can't really tell.

Also, this game has by far the best audio sting. It sounds like a Doctor Who sound effect.

Write It

The user must type in the number spoken. Nothing displayed.

Audio sting: Ping, pang, pong.

Example L1 question: "NINETY-FIVE"

Example L2 question: "NINETY THOUSAND NINE"

Example L3 question: "SEVENTY-SEVEN THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED SEVENTY-SEVEN"

Number Stumper

Audio sting: Diddlydiddlyding!

Quite unlike the other modes, this is a game, similar to Mastermind, where the Speak & Math picks a secret number and the user tries to guess it. After each guess, the machine announces how many digits were correct ("NUMBER RIGHT") and how many were the right digit, but in the wrong position ("NUMBER IN WRONG PLACE"). Eventually when you guess correctly it plays a special noise ("ooblyoooblybiddlybong!") and says "YOU'VE GOT MY NUMBER".

Conclusion

The Speak & Math is really a fantastic toy. It's interesting that the speech is, weirdly, still sort of novel after all this time. Most of our new-fangled 21st-Century devices don't actually talk to us - it would be fantastically irritating if they all did, really.

The speech personalises the experience - the machine congratulates or admonishes the user in a way that I've never forgotten. The tone of voice when it says "THAT'S INCORRECT" has always haunted me. Listening to it again now, it sounds more matter-of-fact than I recall. As a child, it sounded like a stern teacher telling me off.

Mine is still working after thirty years - built to last! I'm surprised and sad to find it's no longer on the market. I'm saving mine to torment my future children with. Long live the Speak & Math!

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