Edison’s Talking Dolls

If you’re in the New York City area, you may want to reserve a spot at the Edison National Historic Site (ENHS) for tomorrow’s talk on Edison’s talking dolls, which were made by an experimental division of his lab during the 1888-1890 period. Our friends, Robin and Joan Rolfs, owners of two of the preciously rare original dolls, will be giving the main presentation. The details can be found on the Thomas Edison National Historic Park’s Facebook page.

Woman recording a talking doll cylinder

(Scientific American, courtesy of ENHS)

Eight talking-doll cylinder recordings still exist in one form or another today, and Archeophone is proud to have provided audio restorations for the ENHS project. Two of the original specimens, the earliest ones of all, were made of metal! The other six are made of brown wax and probably all date to about 1890. Some of the records were transferred using standard contact technology (such as the Archeophone universal cylinder playback system—not associated with us), others had to be scanned optically (using the IRENE system), and some are older recordings of the dolls actually playing their internal treasures and being recorded with a microphone.

Spend some time at the website set up by Jerry Fabris, curator at the Edison site: http://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/photosmultimedia/edison-talking-doll-recordings-1888-1890.htm. You can hear all eight records, with before and after sounds; and you can see a number of great photos and really get a sense of the technology. It’s a fabulous presentation.

So, what seemed like a good idea in 1888, to give the kiddies a talking plaything, turned out to have a lot of problems. The dolls were too fragile, their media too sensitive, to work properly and reliably. Furthermore, the sounds coming out of the dolls were far more likely to scare the kids to death, rather than soothe them to sleep. Have a listen to “Hickory Dickory Dock”:

(Sound courtesy of ENHS)

And that’s the best sounding one!

Notice the picture above from Scientific American. Here you have one of the young women who were employed by Edison to sit and make these recordings for hours on end, day after day while this experiment lasted. A paid servant, this unknown person is one of the very first professional recording artists.


One thought on “Edison’s Talking Dolls

  1. It’s always eerie to think of a child’s plaything from so long ago…gives it that Stephen King sort of a chill, everyone associated with the toy being long since deceased.

    Makes you wonder what kind of people they were, the recorded voices and the children who listened to them.

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