Benjamin’s dissertation looks at the history of hand-painted synthetic speech. During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, before computer algorithms powered the voices of Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, the only way to reliably produce synthetic speech was with paint and brush. Speech synthesizers worked like player pianos; lines, dots, and dashes were painted on translucent plastic sheets, which were then fed into machines where a beam of light combined with photocell receptors to translate these shapes into sound. Slowly and haltingly, what was known as synthesis-by-art developed into synthesis-by-rule, which powers the algorithms that create computer speech today. As the voices of virtual assistants and other incarnations of speech technology become ubiquitous, their increasingly human sound conceals the materiality of their mechanical origins.
Before coming to Princeton in 2015, Benjamin studied painting at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA) and Yale University’s School of Art (MFA) and taught art history and art theory at Butler University and Purdue University. Benjamin has received fellowships from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, the American Society of Church History, the Strong National Museum of Play, and Creative Time. He was an Al Held Affiliated Fellow at the American Academy in Rome and a Fulbright Research Scholar in Zurich, Switzerland.
His publications include “Mutable Materiality: Illustrations in Kenneth Taylor’s Children’s Bibles(link is external),” Material Religion, Volume 10, Issue 3 (September 2014) and “Testimony of the Senses: Latter-day Saints and the Civilized Soundscape(link is external),” Western Historical Quarterly, Volume 46, Issue 1 (Spring 2015). The latter won the Western History Association’s Bert M. Fireman Prize. “Drawing Time, Engaging Media: Frank Beard’s Political Cartoons, Chalk Talks and Hieroglyphic Bibles” is forthcoming from Winterthur Portfolio.