The roots of ventriloquism are ancient. Some claim that possessed people mentioned in the Bible were just ventriloquists, and the case has been made that diviners in many religions, including perhaps the Oracle of Delphi, were ventriloquists, or as they were once called, "Belly Talkers."
The version of ventriloquism with which most people are familiar, ventriloquism as entertainment, began in the days of Vaudeville in the late 19th century. The vaudeville acts did not concentrate on humor as much as on demonstrating the ventriloquist's ability to deceive the audience and his skill in switching voices. For this reason, many of the performers used multiple figures, switching quickly from one voice to another. Jules Vernon was one of the more famous American vaudeville ventriloquists who used multiple figures. Perhaps the most famous vaudeville ventriloquist, however, The Great Lester, used only one figure, Frank Byron, Jr, and it is the Great Lester's success which paved the way for the one ventriloquist with one figure routine which is so common today.
Ventriloquism was immensely popular in the middle of the 20th century, thanks in great part to the work of one of the Great Lester's students, Edgar Bergen. Bergen popularized the idea of the comedic ventriloquist, and together with his favorite figure, Charlie McCarthy, hosted a radio program that, in the 1930s and early 1940s, was the number one program on the night it aired. Bergen continued performing until his death in 1979, and his popularity inspired many other famous ventriloquists who followed him, including Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, and Senor Wences.