Friday, March 25, 2016

The NRR Project #3: Talking doll cylinders

From the wonderful -- the doll, and the hand-cranked player inside her.
Talking doll cylinders
The Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company
November 1888
Nightmare time!

As discussed in the last NRR Project entry, Thomas Edison was all about finding a profitable use to which to put his inventions. Here’s one of the terrifying consequences of that impetus – the Edison Talking Doll.

For decades, clever arrangements of bladders and reeds in doll bodies had created the culturally familiar talking doll – one that exclaimed “mama” and flipped open its eyes when stood. Edison dreamed of dolls speaking with children’s voices, even telling stories to them, and animal toys with real barks and whistles.

 Here’s how the Edison Talking Doll worked. A small tin or wax cylinder capable of 12 to 15 seconds of recorded sound was housed in the torso of a child’s doll. Hand-turning the playback crank would play the recording of a nursery rhyme. The eight surviving recordings feature “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” “Hickory dickory dock,” Jack and Jill,” “Little Jack Horner,” “There was a little girl,” and “Now I lay me down to sleep.” The National Park Service is the ne plus ultra for info on this, including recordings.

The recordings were individually, by young women using children’s voices. The effect is past unnverving – plaintive, scratchy voices like the kind you hear in the horror film right before the doll stabs you. Given our uneasy associations with dummies, automata, mannequins and the like, it’s not surprising these dolls were not as appealing as they were conceived to be.

Other problems – the hand crank meant that the playback was uneven and warped if not turned careful, the cylinder wore out quickly, and they couldn’t be switched out, either. Most reviews of the day classified the playback as unintelligible. Patrick Feaster’s masterfully thorough essay on the subject can be found here.

It’s useful to consider this dead end. Edison was constantly throwing off ideas, like sparks off a flywheel. His laboratory was an immense research and development complex. The persistent inventor and entrepreneur wasn’t afraid to spend some money to test a product’s viability. Decades before Teddy Ruxpin came long, Edison abandoned the project, buried the recordings in a field, and sold the dolls. Scant few remain to tell the story.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Fifth Regiment March’ and ‘The Pattison Waltz.’

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