Mr. Edison and the Talking Doll
Photo courtesy of Rene Rondeau
In 1877, Thomas Edison dreamed of creating a talking doll using his recent invention of the phonograph. But it took a fellow inventor, William W. Jacques, to develop a real working prototype for the dream to become a reality.

Excited by this new application of the phonograph, Jacques with his partner, Lowell Briggs co-founded the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company in 1887. Edison would only agree to use his name for the doll in return for royalties and stock ownership. Before production even began, however, Edison took control of the company resulting in legal wrangling that would last for years.

In November 1888, the New York Evening Sun announced that Edison's talking dolls had just been "perfected," and that "nothing remains but to manufacture them in large quantities." A commercially viable method of duplicating sound recordings had yet to be developed, so he hired women to make the recordings one at a time.

"There were two young ladies in the room... who were continually talking to the tiny speaking machines, which a skilled workman was turning out in great numbers."

It was Edison's goal to stockpile these tin records "in large quantities" to supply the eventual demand for talking dolls, as reported in the Evening Sun. Edison's Talking Doll was a first in recording historyÑan actual working phonograph made for home entertainment complete with recording. The woman whose voice was used on the first recording could conceivably be the world's first commercial recording artist. But, alas, she is unknown.

It was more than a year later, in April 1890, when Edison brought his talking dolls to market. The model Jacques had developed and described extensively in his notes, used tin for recording the voices, somewhat similar to what Edison used in his original tinfoil phonograph. But Edison, for reasons which remain unclear, switched at some point during production to wax recordings instead of tin.

The finished doll was neither petite, standing tall at 22 inches, nor lightweightÑwith a metal body she weighed a hefty four pounds. The doll was outfitted with an imported Simon and Halbig bisque head no. 719, and had jointed wooden limbs. She was in all respects an attractive doll although somewhat cumbersome.

The miniaturized phonograph was approximately 7 inches high x 3 inches wide, and contained a small wax cylinder upon which the recording was made. A tiny horn for emitting the sound protruded from the top of the contraption. The mechanism was inserted inside the upper body of the doll, with the horn directed to the front (the breast of the doll was perforated to allow the sound to be heard), and a small crank extended to the outside back of the doll. The crank was meant to be wound by hand at an even and steady pace for the doll's voice to be heard clearly. When wound at the proper speed the recording would recite a rhyme or verse which lasted all of six-seconds. Buyers could choose from among 12 different recordings, but as each cylinder was permanently installed, the recordings were not interchangeable so one was left with the same rhyme repeating over and over.

The first shipment of dolls was delivered to the Lenox Lyceum in New York City on April 7, 1890 amid great fanfare and received with awe by the public.

It retailed at $10 for a doll simply dressed and up to $25 for a more elaborate outfit. An initial shipment of 2,500 dolls went out to stores across the country but only 500 were ever actually sold, with many being returned by unhappy customers. In May 1890, only a month after the dolls were distributed, production was stopped and the dolls were recalled from stores.

There were many contributing factors to the public's dissatisfaction: the doll was expensiveÑfor the average worker of that time the doll's price was the equivalent of two weeks salary; the doll was too heavy for most child's play; the phonograph's mechanics were extremely fragile and often broke during shipping from the factory to the store; and perhaps most importantly, the steel stylus that moved across the wax cylinder quickly wore out the wax recording. Added to all of this was the recording itself which was of such poor quality that it was barely understandable.

In an article published in a Winnipeg, Canada news-paper in late 1890, the author wrote: "One of Edison's talking dolls has reached Winnipeg. It is at Miss Maycock's store and is inspected daily by a large number of people. It is a very good evidence of the uses to which the phonograph can be applied, but as a conversationalist or an elocutionist, the doll cannot be pronounced a success. The piece, which the manufacturer has arranged for the lifeless talker to say, is that old familiar nursery rhyme, "Jack and Jill." When the crank is applied to the mechanism and turned, the sound is emitted from a perforated plate on the breast of the doll. At first it is hard to distinguish any words, but by listening attentively and following the rhyme from the start, every word can be heard, though not distinctly. As a novelty it is very interesting." Edison was later quoted as saying that "the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear."

The dolls still at the factory and all the returned dolls had the phonographs removed and all the remaining stock, sans recordings, was sold off. Today, Edison dolls are exceedingly rare and those surviving with the original phonograph are almost impossible to findÑonly a few dolls with the original recordings intact are known to exist. If Edison were alive today he would no doubt be at the forefront of the technological revolution and perhaps have invented a doll that could both talk and walk.

To hear a restored recording of the doll made from a recently found cylinder (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star), go to YouTube at:

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