Donald Sherman orders a pizza using a talking computer, Dec 4, 1974
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Uploaded on Mar 16, 2010
The Artificial Language Laboratory is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the first use of a speech
prosthesis in history: the use by a man with a communication disorder to order a pizza over the telephone
using a voice synthesizer. This high-tech sociolinguistic experiment was conducted at the Lab on the
evening of December 4, 1974. Donald Sherman, who has Moebius Syndrome and had never ordered a
pizza over the phone before, used a system designed by John Eulenberg and J. J. Jackson incorporating
a Votrax voice synthesizer, a product of the Federal Screw Works Co. of Troy, Michigan.
The event was covered at the time by the local East Lansing cable news reporter and by a reporter from
the State News. About seven years later, in 1981, a BBC production team produced a documentary about
the work of the Artificial Language Laboratory and included a scene of a man with cerebral palsy, Michael
Williams, ordering a pizza with a newer version of the Lab's speech system. This second pizza order
became a part of the documentary, which was broadcast throughout the U.S. as part of the "Nova"
science series and internationally as part of the BBC's "Horizon" series.
In January, 1982, the Nova show on the Artificial Language Lab was shown for the first time. The Artificial
Language Lab held a premiere party in the Communication Arts and Sciences Building for all the persons
who appeared in the program plus all faculty members of the College of Communication Arts and
Sciences and their families. The Domino's company generously provided free pizzas for all the guests.
The following December, Domino's again provided pizzas for a party, again held at the Communication
Arts building, to commemorate the first ordering of a pizza eight years earlier. The Convocation was held
thereafter every year through 1988, each year receiving pizzas through the generous gift of Domino's.
The last Communication Enhancement Convocation was held in 1999, celebrating the 25th anniversary of
the first pizza order. In this last Convocation, the Canada Dry Bottling Co. of provided free drinks.
At each event, in addition to faculty and students, the convocation guests included local dignitaries from
the MSU board of trustees and from the Michigan state legislature. Stevie Wonder, whose first talking
computer and first singing computer were designed at the Artificial Language Lab, made telephone
appearances and spoke with the youngsters using Artificial Language Lab technology through their
school district special education programs. MSU icons such as the football team, Sparty, and cheer
leaders made appearances as well.
At this year's event, we expect to take a thoughtful look back at 35 years of progress in the delivery of
augmentative communication technology to persons with disabilities.
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