Summer 2018 - Articles

Creating the Voice of a Genius

By June 11, 2018 No Comments
Creating the Voice of a Genius; photo of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, one of the brightest minds of the century, owes his voice to Auburn graduate, Walt Woltosz ’69.

What started as a technological endeavor spawned from a family need became Woltosz’s lifelong career and greatest achievement. The creation of his communication system has given many who suffer from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) the ability to speak to their families again.

Woltosz’s original system was rigged together from an old computer. Along with his team, they improved the technology and their device gained in popularity and name recognition.

Woltosz received a call one evening from a man requesting information about his communication systems. After listening closely to the description of the client, Woltosz asked if it was Hawking.

That information was confidential. Woltosz waited a couple days and the phone rang once more. He was correct. The client was Hawking.

“I’ll donate whatever he needs,” Woltosz said. “Where do I send the stuff?”

In 1985, British Customs held up the technology for two weeks, because they were suspicious of such a gift being free. Woltosz remembers the first time he met Hawking at a dinner at Gonville and Caius College. He and his wife, Ginger, weren’t sure of what to wear and to be safe, they got dolled up.

“Good thing we did,” Woltosz said. “We walked into this magnificent building and a dining hall that was probably 60 feet long. The dining table was almost the length of the room and there were only about 15 of us.”

Walt Waltosz pictured on Auburn University's campus in 2016 (photograph by High Five Productions)

They ate jugged hare, a traditional British dish, presented by servants wearing white gloves. He said the hare tasted like chicken.

Hawking’s first public lecture was at a conference in Chicago. Woltosz was expected to meet Hawking before the conference to install the voice synthesizer. However, Woltosz’s flight was delayed, but he booked it to the event and made it just in time to give Hawking his voice. 

Hawking was later known to apologize for his American accent, even though Woltosz said it could have been changed at any time upon Hawking’s request. Woltosz and his team visited intermittently to ensure the technology was working at the highest level, and Hawking was always willing to give feedback. The theoretical physicist kept the accent and used the technology until he died, March 14, 2018.

Woltosz never imagined where his life would take him. He was born in a small town in Arkansas, his mother went into false labor and when they returned from the hospital, the house had burned while they were gone—only ashes remained. His father built an “Ozark Hillbilly Shack” where they lived for about a year. 

After receiving the gift of a HAM radio at the age of 12, Woltosz’s interest in electronics was born, and he chose to attend Auburn after hearing others speak about the university. A self-proclaimed “rocket scientist,” he jumped majors from industrial engineering to electrical engineering to aerospace engineering while at Auburn, graduating in ’67 and immediately taking on a full graduate class load. 

His professional life led him from Atlanta to Huntsville, but Woltosz’s bond with Auburn has never wavered. He and Ginger have a strong legacy of philanthropy throughout the university. The couple established the Woltosz Graduate Fellowships for engineering students who demonstrate outstanding scholastic accomplishments. They also have made generous donations to the Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center, the equestrian facilities, the Canine Performance Sciences program, AU Students with Disabilities and many other programs and facilities. In recognition of their significant gifts, the Woltosz Engineering Laboratory at the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering was named in their honor.

Today, Woltosz is known for founding Words PLUS, Simulations PLUS and is currently working toward a career in film and directing. He said Hawking was a special client, but the same is true for every patient—and the families that rally around them.

by Lily Jackson ’18