Stephen Hawking’s tailor-made hi-tech wheelchair and his computer-generated voice are expected to live on as a legacy of the world-famous theoretical physicist who died earlier this month aged 76. According to ‘The Sunday Times’, the scientist’s family hope that his wheelchair and voice systems could help preserve his memory and are open to offers from museums. One of the ideas under consideration is for the Science Museum in London to commemorate Hawking’s life with an exhibition featuring one of his two wheelchairs as a centrepiece, accompanied by recordings of his lectures.
Computer engineers had spent four years rebuilding the 33-year-old synthesiser that created Hawking’s robotic tones after it was in danger of failing. “We fixed the new system to his wheelchair on January 26,” Peter Benie, a computing specialist at Cambridge University who co-led the project, told the newspaper. “It was the same voice but much clearer. He was using it to talk with his family but he died before it could be heard in public. I would be happy to hear it used to repeat his lectures,” he said.
The wheelchair, made in Sweden and capable of travelling 20 miles at 8mph on one charge, combined technology from around the world. Its computer, a Lenovo from China, used an American-made infrared sensor on his glasses to “read” his cheek movements. Hawking’s voice was developed by Dennis Klatt, a US scientist who based it on his own speech.
The “CallText 5010” system based on Klatt’s work delighted Hawking so much that he bought three — but when the last began failing, it was too old to fix. Hawking had famously rejected all ideas of an afterlife. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story,” he said.
He had been diagnosed with motor neuron disease in his 20s, which meant he spent much of his life in a wheelchair. For his friends and family the wheelchair was central to his identity, which would now most likely have an afterlife. Thousands lined the streets of Cambridge yesterday for the private funeral of the author of ‘A Brief History of Time’ at the University Church of St. Mary the Great.
It was announced earlier this month that Hawking’s ashes will be buried near the grave of Isaac Newton, another famous British scientist, during a thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey in London on June 15.