As Hasbro's Don Levine watched GI Joe projected on a big screen at the 1966 Toy Fair sales meeting, with a voice-over shouting, "Storm the hill, men!" he leaned over to Merrill and jabbed him with his elbow, "Wouldn't it be something if we could get our guy to talk like that?"
The comment was made half in jest, but by June Hasbro was meeting with Bolt Baranek and Newman, Inc*., a local consulting firm with expertise in sound reproduction. Sam Speers recalls sitting down and describing what was needed to some very confident representatives from the firm. "No problem," was the quick answer, illustrated by complex diagrams and equations on a blackboard.
Hasbro's requirements for GI Joe's voicebox were very strict. The entire mechanism needed to be built for under 42¢ and fit inside Joe's chest cavity, which would be redesigned as a two-piece unit to accommodate whatever BB&N could come up with.
"Mattel had a parallel product in it's plush toys, which was a record player. When you pulled its string, it spoke random phrases," remembers Heine. "It was decided early on that we didn't want that with GI Joe. If you're a kid playing with Joe, you want to pick what he says. We were also under the impression that Mattel had patented key features that we needed, so some elements of what we eventually invented were weaker than they could have been." The Mattel device was also much larger than required for GI Joe; approximately the size of a human heart.
BB&N decided that a linear recording-sound units embedded one after another on a straight stretch of tape, rather than on a round record with units separated by tracks-could both conform to the small space constraint and provide a manner with which individual phrases could be selected by longer or shorter pulls on a string. A color code on the cord would indicate how far to pull for any given phrase. Still, it seemed impossible to self-power the mechanism at a rate that would play back the tape smoothly.
After a trip to New York to record test tracks that were then transferred to a vinyl tape medium for integration into the voicebox unit, BB&N was finally ready to present a prototype-nine months after their initial meeting, much to Hasbro's chagrin.
"Hasbro didn't understand how we worked," says Heine. "They'd never really been involved with a consulting company before. The work ethic and methodology was much different at BB&N than it was at Hasbro. They were always trying to figure out why we weren't there at eight in the morning and never seemed to be around when they called."
Indeed, none of the staff at Hasbro-accustomed as they were to total, around the clock immersion in a particular problem or project until a result was achieved-was comfortable with what they perceived as very slow progress. Having an invention "made to order" was not the general mode of operation in toy production; Hasbro was used to outside inventors coming in with thought-out ideas and mechanisms that needed only be made practical for manufacturing.
After weeks of listening to audition tapes, a local DJ named King Arthur Knight* was selected to create a soundtrack of appropriate-and, after some long hours, inappropriate-phrases for GI Joe to speak. Each phrase was recorded multiple times with the inflection falling differently on each take ("GI Joe reporting for duty, sir!" "GI Joe reporting for duty, sir!" "GI Joe reporting for duty, sir!"), and these tracks were then played and replayed in the creative department ad nauseam until the proper version of each could be settled upon-a total of thirty-two final phrases.
When tested for clarity in the mechanism, unfortunately, blind trials revealed that only half of the listeners polled could identify what was being said; the sound was far less than crystal clear. Disaster was averted when someone came up with the shrewd idea of printing each phrase on a box insert. When the test was repeated, recognition went up to ninety-nine percent.
Talking GI Joe introduced a new limitation that none of his forebears suffered: He could not be submerged in water without damaging the voicebox mechanism. The unfortunate lapse neatly underlined the miscommunication between BB&N and Hasbro --- another of Bolt, Baranek and Newman's clients was the U. S. Navy, for whom they developed underwater sound systems.
Excerpted from GI JOE: THE COMPLETE STORY OF AMERICA'S FAVORITE MAN OF ACTION by John Michlig (Chronicle Books)