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Language Laboratory and included a scene of a man with cerebral palsy, Michael Williams, ordering a pizza with a newer version of the Lab’s speech system.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. T
he 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.