Thomas Edison and the Talking Doll

Edison talking dollThomas Edison is well known as the inventor of the phonograph. But did you know he also marketed a talking doll? As I note in my book, Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World:

In bit of fancy, Edison and Batchelor made a reproducing mechanism small enough to fit into the torso of a child’s doll. Pulling a string would engage “a small phonograph…with an automatic return motion so that you simply turn always in one direction and it always says the same thing over and over again.”

What a great idea? Think of all the fun young children could have with a talking doll in their playroom in 1890. What a thrill! What an experience!

What a bomb!

Unfortunately, the mini-phonographs were easily damaged in transit and rarely remained in working order. This was perhaps for the best, as the high-pitched, tinny voice, when it worked, shrieked out creepy versions of child’s nursery rhymes.

Okay. Not such a thrill.

The talking dolls were one of many “failures” of Thomas Edison. Even his phonograph was left behind as competitors such as the Victor Talking Machine Company (producer of the Victrola) out-designed and out-competed Edison. The iconic Edison wax cylinders (which I heard in last year’s visit to Menlo Park) were replaced by flat disks featuring Enrico Caruso and other famed singers. Ironically, the nearly deaf Edison insisted on picking out all the music for his phonographs, then refused to put the names of the singers on the disks. In the end, people wanted to listen to famous artists, not famous arias.

What they did not want to listen to was the screechy sounds coming out of the dolls. Kids were more scared than entertained. Luckily, the dolls rarely worked at all, so Edison closed down production after only a few weeks. In addition to what I say in the book, you can read more on the dolls here and see one in person at a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.

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2 thoughts on “Thomas Edison and the Talking Doll

  1. i often think the “new and improved” mindset is undervalued. America has had more than its share of inventions and firsts, but there is a tendency to be satisfied with that. We had a mercury float flowmeter calibrator that was decades old in my first job and was starting to stick. It required manually noting pressure and temperature and doing a bunch of calculations by hand and was limited in for low flow so that it took a long time to measure. Management wanted it replaced with one from the same company, the ones that invented the notion, but, when I went looking, they were exactly the same thing, five tubes instead of three, but still manual and no changes in the mechanism at all. I kept looking and found another company that used the same idea (mercury floats) but radar so low flow and high flow could both be done quickly and hooked up to a cheap PC that measured temp and pressure and did all the calculations for you. And it cost half as much.

    I admire invention, but I also appreciate the folks and cultures that see something useful and think, “How could I make this better?” Japan, for instance, has a special affinity for that kind of thing.

  2. Wow! Scary video indeed. Having just returned from hearing a magnificent Stradivarius violin in the hands of a talented, expert musician being played live for a group of local students, that video lends a whole new meaning to the concept of poor sound quality! Imagining the abject fear of music that might be instilled in an entire generation of children via mini-phonographs, I think I’ll agree with Stephanie’s assessment of the benefit (necessity, in some cases) of improving on a technology.

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