We had this toy idea for a voice scrambling helmet.
It was 1979 (or thereabouts). The helmet would cover your face completely (think Darth Vader™), have an internal microphone and headset, and an external microphone and speaker. The child would put it on their head, turn it on, and speak. Circuitry in the helmet would scramble the child’s voice and output the garbled speech through the external speaker. The helmet would be sound insulated enough such that the child’s speaking voice was muffled, ensuring that the only thing that was heard externally was the unintelligible speech coming out of the external speaker.
If you were not wearing a helmet, you could not understand what was being said; you essentially heard “alien-speak.” Conversely, if you were within earshot and had a helmet on, the garbled speech would be picked up by your helmet’s external microphone, processed (unscrambled), and played through the internal headset in your helmet. For fun, a switch would allow the users to choose different types and styles of scrambled alien voices. Additionally, a security setting common to a set of helmets could keep that dialogue private between those users only.
The helmets would be sold in pairs. Imagine kids being able to have a conversation among themselves in an alien language with other people in earshot unable to understand a word that was being said. I thought it was the coolest toy idea ever!
For a little background, in the mid-1970’s, I was in college full-time, majoring in art. As I was paying for my own tuition, I got a part time job at my older brother’s contract-engineering company. My brother Steve was an electronics genius, and his partner Jim was an accomplished industrial designer. When I joined, the company was doing injection molded plastic case design (under Jim), and electronics (under Steve). I knew nothing about either of those specialties, but I was skilled at picking up lunch at the deli or buying coke and M&M’s at the food store, which made me more than qualified.
Jim ran the company. He was a very formal, buttoned-up gentleman, with impeccable manners and grace. He never got flustered, and he had the demeanor of an English gentleman. He rarely wore suits, but in his country club khakis and polo shirt he was the picture of composure.
Little did I know at the time, but the 1970s were a formative decade in electronics. The space program of the 1960s had pushed the miniaturization of electronics, because weight matters when you’re launching a rocket into outer space. Those technology advancements inevitably found their way into the consumer product market.
For example, by 1971, microprocessors (a computer on a chip) had been introduced but were only cost effective for industrial and military applications. But before the end of the decade, microprocessors would drop in price, enabling the introduction of groundbreaking products such as the handheld calculator, the Apple II personal computer and the Atari 2600 game console.
Microprocessors quickly advanced in capabilities and complexity, progressing from Intel’s 4004 4-bit microprocessor of 1971 to their 8008, an 8-bit version released in 1972, and the 8080, an even more powerful Intel device released in 1974. Other manufacturers began releasing 8-bit microprocessors, including the Motorola 6800 and the MOS Technologies 6502 (1974). With an aggressively low price point of $25 per device, the 6502 found its way into the Atari 2600/400/800, the Apple II, the Nintendo NES, and the Commodore 64.
While Texas Instruments also had 8-bit microprocessors, they strategically targeted the consumer market in 1974 with a lower cost, less capable 4-bit microprocessor called the TMS-1000. The TMS-1000 was actually more than a microprocessor; it was a microcontroller, which is a microprocessor plus many of the necessary components to function as the heart of a standalone device. While the first microcontrollers did not have the power of the 8-bit processors, the tradeoff of capabilities vs. per unit cost opened up a market for microprocessor-based products. At $25 per unit, the 6502 was not a candidate for use in a $40 electronic toy, but a $3-$4 microcontroller was well within the realm of possibility.
When I first arrived, the electronics work at the company consisted of things like digital clocks, timers and simple instrumentation. In 1977, in a seismic event heard all over Glen Rock, New Jersey (where our office was), Mattel came out with Mattel Football, a handheld electronic toy based on a microcontroller chip from Rockwell.¹ It was a massive success.
With the success of Mattel’s product, our company quickly pivoted its focus from the (boring?) digital clocks to the sexier toy industry. Along the way, I learned electronics on-the-fly (under the tutelage of my brother Steve), switched my major from art to electrical engineering (college counselor: “are you sure? We’ve never had anyone do that.”) and enrolled in evening classes as I found myself working 100 hours a week. My career was off and running.
Back to 1979 and the helmet.
We built a prototype of the idea using two Darth Vader helmets from Toys ‘R Us.
It was a bear to get them working but eventually we did (sort off). When they worked, they were incredible. It was so cool. Unfortunately, there were times when they didn’t work. Gerry, the engineer in charge, had decided to do the voice processing with analog circuitry (I prefer digital myself). Some days that analog circuitry did what it was supposed to… other days, not so much.
And on top of that, the physical Darth Vader helmets we were using for the prototypes were made for kids, so it was a pain in the a** to get them on and off your head to test. And you had to have them pulled down all the way, so that your speaking voice didn’t audibly leak out and interfere with hearing the scrambled voice.
Jim came back to the lab one afternoon while we were testing the prototypes, and on that particular day, they were working well. He was so impressed that he ran to the phone and set up a meeting for the following week. He was going to take the prototypes up to Boston to demonstrate them to the Vice President of Marketing of one of the country’s largest toy companies. We had done work for that company before, so they were excited to see what we had come up with.
Gerry and I spent the rest of the week through the weekend trying to “sure up” the prototypes for the upcoming demonstration and, by Sunday night, we felt we had done all we could. They worked most of the time. Monday morning arrived and Jim came to the office, grabbed the units and drove four hours north for the big demonstration. All day, we waited for a call from him, hoping to get an update on how the presentation had gone. Not a word.
Finally, at about 7 pm Monday evening, we heard the lobby door. We gave him a minute to drop stuff in his office, and then we ran in to get the word on how it went.
I was first into his office, “How did it go Jim?”
With his back to us as he was putting down his briefcase, he snarled “Not well, the effing things didn’t work. We tried for two hours then gave up. Here, get these out of here.” When he turned around to throw the prototypes at Gerry and I, it took every ounce of self-control we had not to burst out laughing.
Here was Jim, the picture of composure, the man who was never flustered, with the bridge of his nose completely destroyed, showing a bloody dent where the too small, child-size helmet had forcibly been stopped each time he jammed the malfunctioning device onto his head for yet another try.
Years later one of the Star Wars licensors came out with a Darth Vader, voice-changing helmet toy, but it didn’t have the scramble/unscramble ability. It just modified your voice.
As I went on to learn, such is the life of an inventor. You win some, you lose some. C’est la vie.
 Mattel Football was programmed by Mark Lesser, a pioneer in electronic games who went on to have a successful career as a game programmer and designer. His early work does not get the attention it deserves.