In 1985, the great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking caught pneumonia during a trip to CERN in Genoa. Against the indications of the doctors, the also great Jane Hawking, his wife at that time, decided not to disconnect him from the respirator that kept him alive. He moved him to another hospital and there the infection could be contained, but so that he could breathe properly, he underwent a tracheotomy.
As a result, Stephen Hawking lost his voice and his British accent. Soon after, I would begin to speak in a somewhat particular American accent. It was not a side effect of the aggressive procedure or a symptom of ALS.
Hawking had to resort to a system of spelling and letters to communicate and keep working, something exhausting for his wife and his assistants, but given the increasing popularity of the astrophysicist, a better solution appeared in just under a year.
Martin King, a physicist who had worked with Hawking, contacted a Californian company called World Plus. Its Equalize program allowed a user to choose letters and commands on a computer screen using a switch, without the need for a keyboard or a mouse.
The CEO of this company had designed a device and a similar program to help his mother-in-law, who also suffered from ELA, and had no problem in donating an Apple II computer with the necessary programs so that Hawking communicated independently. With the computer and with the help of the engineer’s husband of one of his nurses, he managed to speak again: he could produce 15 words per minute.
Mind you, Hawking’s new voice was robotic and rudimentary. The astrophysicist constructed the phrases in a program and then sent them to a voice synthesizer that he pronounced with what he himself described as a mixture of “Scandinavian, American and Scottish accents” and that no longer occurs. In fact, the modifications that Intel was making during the following years are registered and copyrighted.
The particularity of his voice gave him a lot of play when someone asked about his accent, to the point of joking about it with Isabel II herself. When the Queen of England asked her if she “still had that American voice” in a meeting, the astrophysicist replied that “yes, it is in fact registered”. He also considered, not very seriously, changing to a French accent, but he did not do it for fear that his wife would divorce him.
Hawking kept this voice for more than 30 years. And despite the advances in this field, he preferred to use the original sound of 1986 with slight alterations. As he said on more than one occasion, “I keep using it because I have not heard another voice that I like more and because I feel identified with it”. The physical deterioration that he suffered due to the ELA caused him to change his communication system several times. By 2005, the nerve in his hand deteriorated and he could no longer operate the switch, but one of his assistants developed a system that used the movement of his cheek and that was placed in his glasses. It was a very complex device that used a low frequency infrared beam to recognize the movements of the cheek, but it worked more slowly than its previous system.
I could barely write two words per minute and it was very frustrating, since it lacked elements as basic as an option to correct a word with a single misspelled letter or to go back without needing to scroll through the virtual keys of the screen one by one. Special collaboration with Intel researchers led to the development of a much more advanced system that recognized the movements of their cheeks, but also their more complex facial expressions. Given the advances in text prediction, Hawking wrote in a similar way to typing on a mobile virtual keyboard.
The computer that was embedded in his chair ended up being quite advanced. In addition to all the almost unique and personal technology that Intel had developed for him, he surfed the Internet using Firefox, wrote his essays on Notepad and had a webcam to make video calls on Skype.
And when he did not want to talk, Hawking could activate the ‘mute’. As one of his assistants commented in 2015, his computer had a button to ‘shut up’ the teacher while he ate or moved, because the movements created interferences that could play a trick on him. On one occasion, unintentionally marked the letter X several times, which in the pronunciation of the machine seemed to say “sex” (‘sex’ in English) without stopping.