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How Did Stephen Hawking Communicate?

Ratnashri Dutta Nov 3, 2018
If you want to know how did Stephen Hawking talk, despite suffering from a permanent voice loss, then here you will get all about it. You will get to know more about the machine with the help of which people suffering from similar problems can communicate.
All of us have heard about the famous personality Stephen William Hawking, one of the greatest scientists in the world. He wrote a very famous book, 'A Brief History of Time.'
He was an English theoretical physicist and cosmologist. From a very young age, he had been interested in science and technology. When he was young, he became disabled due to a motor neuron disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Diagnosed with ALS

There are quite a few people who are a victim of ALS that Stephen Hawking suffered from. However, in his case, it became the most protracted case that was ever documented. It was said that a person with ALS doesn't usually survive for more than 3 - 4 years. But that was not the case with Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76. He was barely 21 years old when detected with this ailment. Due to this troublesome disease, he slowly lost the ability to use his limbs and could not even talk properly, resulting in a stage of complete paralysis.

Stricken by Pneumonia

In 1985, he contracted pneumonia and his condition was so critical that, in order to keep him alive, tracheotomy was carried out on him. This led to a complete speech loss for Stephen Hawking.
However, even after passing through such traumatic stages of life, what he did not lose was his will to survive, and do something great. Ever since he lost his voice, he started communicating with the help of an electronic voice synthesizer. Let us understand in detail how did Stephen Hawking talk using this synthesizer.

DECtalk Synthesizer

Technology has advanced to such an extent that it helps disabled victims to overcome their disabilities by using modern devices. The DECtalk is a speech synthesizer and also a text-to-speech technology, that is used by people like Stephen Hawking, who cannot communicate properly.
This device was first developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1980s. One could connect this synthesizer with a telephone or any other device that had an asynchronous serial port. Stephen Hawking used the DECtalk DTC01 voice synthesizer for communicating.
Moreover, he used this technology for such a long time that he was ultimately associated with it. The accent used by him was that of an American English speaker, which had become obsolete by then. However, he still used it because he could identify and relate himself with that particular voice.

Synthesizers Used by Hawking

The DECtalk DTC 01 voice synthesizer has a predictive program, with the help of which the user can actually select the words and frame a sentence. It is a tedious process and it took him at least 20 minutes to frame a sentence properly.
He used his cheek to enter the data and the synthesizer, which had the predictive program installed in it, needed only a few characters to auto-complete the entire sentence. The IR sensors in the synthesizer trigger the twitching of the cheek muscle present under the eye.
Although completely paralyzed, he used only his cheek muscles, and he used this to type sentences. However, it would take him almost 5 minutes to type just one sentence.
Earlier, he used the Equalizer, which was a software developed by Walter Woltosz, and in order to use this software, Hawking could spell by tapping a button with his hand. A screen was mounted on the wheelchair in a position from where it was convenient for him to see.
A cursor moved on the upper part of the screen, and he used to stop it by pressing a switch, which was in his hand. It was with the help of this switch that he could select words that were printed on the lower part of the screen.
Although he could type just four words per minute, that was the best way he could communicate with the world, and it was with the help of this technology that he wrote so many books and also gave countless lectures.
David Mason, from the Cambridge Adaptive Communication, later on, added a computer that would run the Equalizer and that would convert the text to audible speech. The voice that was used sounded a bit robotic and somewhat American.
This was the voice that the world became used to as Stephen Hawking's voice. He himself loved the voice so much that long after the machine became obsolete, he kept it as a memory.
Hawking used the NeoSpeech's VoiceText speech synthesizer. A computer screen was been fixed onto his wheelchair. The software used for communication was run by this computer. He created words by using switches.
On completion of a sentence formation, the completed sentence was sent by him to the speech synthesizer, wherein it converted into speech. This technology is not device-specific and thus, turns out to be very beneficial, when it comes to using it over different devices and platforms. Moreover, it produces natural sounds which are realistic.
It's a wonder how a person who lost the power of speech and movement could carry out such researches with the twitch of his eye muscles.