While we may never know what the ‘must have" Christmas gift was in 1890, we do know that it most assuredly wasn’t Thomas Edison’s talking doll.

Using miniature phonographs embeded inside, these “talking” baby dolls were toy manufacturers’ first attempt at using sound technology in toys. They marked a collaboration between Edison and William Jacques and Lowell Briggs, who worked to miniaturize the phonograph starting in 1878.

Unfortunately, production delays, poor recording technology, high production costs, and damages during distribution all combined to create toys that were a complete disaster, terrifying children and costing their parents nearly a month’s pay.

Edison would later refer to the dolls as his “little monsters.” The recording below is of “Little Jack Horner” and comes from one of the actual dolls, courtesy of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

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The dolls were equipped with built-in mini-phonographs that played one of 12 different nursery rhymes — fitting, as the first recording ever made on a phonograph was of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Not so sweet: As one Edison site notes, “Sound recording was in its infancy, and the cracklings and hissing on early records were more disturbing when they were supposed to be the voices of sweet-faced dolls.” Images: Courtesy of Robin and Joan Rolfs.

Ahead of his time, again: The doll factory is seen above. However, as one researcher notes, “there was no way to mass-produce the cylinders, so each one had to be recorded individually in wax on the disk.” Images: Courtesy of Robin and Joan Rolfs.

 

 

But she did look nice! This version of the doll came in a chemise dress, while others, like the one in the first photo, came in a Victorian-style dress. Image: Courtesy of Robin and Joan Rolfs.

 

So why did the talking dolls end up sounding more like Chucky than Teddy Ruxpin?

  1. Technical limitations: “To operate the doll you had to turn the crank by hand, turning at the perfect pace to keep the right count,” says Robin Rolfs, a collector of Edison dolls and co-author of “Phonograph Dolls & Toys.” As you might guess, kids were about as good at following specific technical instructions then as they are now.
     
  2. Cost: The basic doll, which wore a chemise, was $10, and the elegantly dressed doll was $25. Most people needed at least a month’s salary to save that much.
     
  3. Manufacturing: “It wasn’t cuddly,” says Joan Rolfs, co-author of “Phonograph Dolls & Toys.” “She was to be treasured rather than hugged.” The body of the doll was made of tin metal and weighed four pounds.
     
  4. Distribution: There was no UPS and no foam packing, and so many of the dolls that shipped had their fragile 3-inch wax cylinder or the steel needle damaged during shipment.

Others did come along and improve upon Edison’s miss. Henri Lioret made a similar doll using celluloid with interchangeable recordings and Emile Berliner made one using disk recordings.

But Edison, who was GE’s founder, was so perturbed by the process of making his “little monsters” that he never got back into the market once celluloid and disks came along to make the process simpler. In the end, he had to be content with inventing the idea of recorded sound technology as entertainment for children.

Handle with care: The wax disks meant they also wore out very quickly. The hand crank can be seen at right after being removed from one of the dolls. Images: Courtesy of Robin and Joan Rolfs.

Learn more in these GE Reports stories:
* “Edison’s Forgotten ‘Invention’: A Phone That Calls the Dead
* “Top 10 Responses to Thomas Edison’s ‘Phone to Call the Dead
* “In 1900 Electric Vehicles Reigned and Edison Charged Them!
* “Edison speaks! Cracking the pallophotophone code
* “The Story Behind the Real ‘Iron Man’ Suit
* “Santa’s Got Game: GE Researchers Juice-up Futuristic Toy Lab