Wolfgangs von Kempelen
Mechanismus der menschlichen Sprache nebst der Beschreibung seiner sprechenden Maschine
Wien, 1791, J. B. Degen.

NEW: The book is now online here, via a new improved (?) interface.

See here for a Danish translation of this page, here for a translation by ChameleonJohn into Indonesian, and here for a translation into Portuguese by Travel-ticker.

This is one of the remaining copies of the first edition of Wolfgang von Kempelen's classic study of articulatory phonetics and speech synthesis. There were probably only about 190 or so copies in this first print run, judging by the number of subscribers listed in the preface. There was also a French edition published at the same time (Le Mécanisme de la parole).

It would be interesting to find out how many copies of this book survive. I know of the following:

Kempelen's work is interesting not only because its level of detail is so impressive, but also because it was written at a time when modern science as we know it was really beginning to gather steam in the century following Newton. Kempelen's attack on the fanciful phonetic "theory" of F.M.B. ab Helmont developed in his Alphabeti vere Naturalis Hebraici Brevissima Delineatio (see third bullet item below) is particularly interesting in this regard. Helmont was a kabbalist and a follower of the great syncretic tradition that was at the height of intellectual endeavor in the Middle Ages, where the goal was to seek truths by deep analysis and synthesis of ancient texts. (Steve Farmer's encyclopedic study of the 900 theses of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the greatest of the syncretists, is probably the best source on this interesting phase of intellectual history.) Kabbalists in particular sought to find hidden senses in the symbols that were used in the Hebrew bible; they are thus the forebears of the continuing mystical views of symbols that helps explain the popularity of Dan Brown's books. Helmont's particular contribution in this work was to argue that the Hebrew letters actually represented the shapes made by the vocal organs when producing the sounds represented by the letters. If he had known of King Sejong's invention, Hangul (1446), and had instead described that, he would have been on solid ground. Applied the Hebrew alphabet, of course, the idea was pure nonsense, and Kempelen attacks it as such. At one point he expresses amazement that Helmont was unable to introspect about the shapes his tongue was making and realize that his claims were false.

My copy of the Mechanismus is currently housed at the OHSU Historical Collections & Archives. The third set of photos above was done by the OHSU Historical Collections as part of an effort to digitize this book.

I list here the subscribers (Praenumeranten) to Kempelen's book, with links for those people I was able to track down.


© 2009, Richard Sproat