The darwin’s grandfather his name was also Darwin and, furthermore, he had a stutter. I tell it to avoid what they call the ‘biographer’s temptation’; that of explaining the whole life, the ideas and goals of a person by a concrete fact of his biography. In this case it is necessary, of course; because in addition to being an excellent doctor, an innovative botanist and a mediocre poet, Erasmus Darwin was one of the great language scholars of the 18th century.
And if it was not enough, lost £1,000 (from 1770) against one of the key figures in the invention of the steam engine and the birth of the industrial revolution, Matthew Boulton.
In the beginning was the Word
The level of obsession and curiosity that language aroused in him led him to spend months putting cylinders in his mouth with the intention of finding the exact place where sounds were formed in the mouth. He made amazing progress. In fact, in one of his key books (the ‘Temple of Nature’), he published the one that is considered “the first recorded example of an instrumental phonetic study on a speaker”.
Among his findings, he identified 13 features that differentiated all human sounds and developed a whole theory about the origin (onto and phylogenetic) of language. It was then, while he was explaining his advances in one of those gatherings and societies that populated England at the time and laid the foundations for contemporary scientific debate, when Boulton raised the bet: if he knew so much about language, it would not be difficult for him to make a machine capable of pray out loud
Boulton and Darwin knew each other; indeed, they were old friends. In fact, the former was well aware of the technological ingenuity of the latter: for the Boulton offices, good old Erasmus Darwin had created a small proto-photocopier that had the effervescent industrial world of Birmingham. But even he did not believe that Darwin could succeed.
What happens is that the Darwins are very stubborn.
In “The Temple of Nature”, Erasmus described his machine in quite a lot of detail: “I designed a wooden mouth with soft leather lips, and with a back part for the nostrils, which could be quickly opened or closed with the pressure of the fingers.”
“The vocality was given by a silk ribbon an inch long and a quarter inch wide stretched between two slightly hollowed-out pieces of smooth wood; so that when a gentle stream of bellows air was blown on the edge of the tape, it gave off a pleasing tone, as it vibrated between the wooden sides, like a human voice.”
Although it sounds a bit abstract and no prototype has reached us, the information has been more than enough to reconstruct the pileup. With mixed results, yes. According to Darwin, “this head pronounced the p, b, m, and the vowel a. She did it with such finesse that she fooled everyone who heard her without being seen, when she pronounced the words like mama, papa, map, pam”. And, for all we know, it was true.
A truly impressive development was discussed: the loquendo of 1770. However, it wasn’t enough to win the bet that, let us remember, required that the machine be able to “pray”; or, rather, to recite more complex sentences than those that could be constructed with such a limited repertoire of sounds.
I have always found it curious that erasmus darwin be so unknown. It is true that he never patented any of his inventions because he thought that his role as an inventor could damage his reputation as a doctor, but his work advanced numerous scientific and philosophical ideas (among them, the evolution that his grandson would lead to the maximum expression of him). I imagine that, in a family with so much genius per square meter, that is where the old expression “few Erasmus and grandma gave birth” (from Darwin, of course) fully makes sense.
Image | Molly Fletcher and Tom Wilkinson (via Erasmus Darwin House) | Documentation Project of the Science & Industry collections at Birmingham Museums Trust