Skip to Content
Alumni profile

Thomas P. Barnwell III ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70 William Jouris ’61

Making machines that speak without an accent.
April 25, 2018
Courtesy of Thomas Barnwell

Today’s tech landscape features an increasing number of machines that talk, most of them in a neutral-sounding American accent. Pioneering research in the 1960s by Thomas P. ­Barnwell III is widely acknowledged to have helped launch this speech synthesis technology. Less well known is that his MIT friend William Jouris was the source of that quintessential accent. 

The project began in Building 26’s Research Laboratory of Electronics. ­Barnwell was working on a project aimed at reading printed text aloud for the blind, which produced the 1967 MIT Reading Machine, the first system capable of scanning text and producing continuous speech.

“My part of the Reading Machine was the talking piece, an analog synthesizer that could produce sounds of speech,” he recalls. “Words are a series of sounds, phonemes, but there’s also structural and hierarchical information that comes out in nuances like duration of sounds, pitch, and stresses.

“We needed to turn that structural information into control information for the synthesizer. To help with that, I started capturing reading voices of students to study how they made phrases. The variation was tremendous.”

One participant was Jouris, a Chicago-area native and Barnell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity brother: “I remember him showing me on a spectrum analyzer the difference between words pronounced with and without an accent. It was news to me, but he proved scientifically that I had no accent!”

The information, published in Barnwell’s dissertation, influenced the nascent field of speech synthesis. “It wasn’t the whole solution, but … it became a building block,” Barnwell says.

Barnwell went on to join the faculty at Georgia Tech, receiving the IEEE’s 2014 Jack Kilby Medal for his contributions to signal processing. He also cofounded Atlanta Signal Processors, now a subsidiary of Polycom, with Ron Schafer, PhD ’68, and Russ Mersereau ’69, SM ’69, ScD ’73. Jouris (who has also worked in nuclear engineering, oceanographic research, and environmental engineering) served as the company’s head of sales for several years.

“Tom and I still see each other sometimes,” says Jouris. “He and his wife are tremendous bluegrass musicians, and we’ll sit around and sing folk songs together.” 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.