The Actual History of Synthetic Larynges

From underarm accordion bellows to Kraftwerk

In 1971’s horror classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Vincent Price stars as a dead inventor who drinks champagne by pouring it into a speaker jack in the side of his neck. He looks like Captain Kangaroo with a hangover and is somewhat of a romantic, embalming his wife and preserving a sense of humor despite losing his face and voice box in a car crash. Phibes plays an orange Wurlitzer organ, cuts a fox-trot to his robot jazz trio (the Clockwork Wizards), and speaks through a golden art-deco Victrola plugged into his neck. “As you see and can hear,” he says, “I have used my knowledge of music and acoustics to re-create my voice.”

The Phibes socket appeared to be a modified fistula, the site of larynx extirpation for victims of throat cancer. It is a hole where a hole should never be, and Philip Morris would rather it not appear on television ads, much less the Marlboro Man’s gizzard.

Phibes’ DIY voice box was unique (if not insane) in that it was electronic and could still take a slug of Moët. The actual history of synthetic larynges claims inventions no less bizarre, many of which are German-made, with sources of inspiration ranging from balloon reeds and woodwinds to one patient who’d created his own fistula with a hot ice pick.

In 1870, Dr. V. Czerny was installing artificial larynges in canines, with dubious results (“The dog could yawn and make some noises”). In 1913, Dr. T. Gluck wrote of an underarm accordion bellows that plugged into the nasopharynx. More Phibesian would be Gluck’s motorized gramophone purse, which was wired to a denture plate (with tongue-flicked pitch control) and allowed patients to channel their favorite singer, a form of lip-synch by necessity.

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—Dave Tompkins

Dave Tompkins lives in Brooklyn, where he’s working on his first book, I Have No Vocoder And I Must Scream. Dr. Phibes’ remote control shrink-to-kill toad helmet will be included.

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