Hear Thomas Edison’s Creepy Talking Dolls: An Invention That Scared Kids & Flopped on the Market

Edison doll

When study­ing his­to­ry’s most famous cre­ators, we must nev­er for­get that they always pro­duced fail­ures as well as suc­cess­es, and often fail­ures as impres­sive as their suc­cess­es. Take Thomas Edi­son, wide­ly regard­ed as the great Amer­i­can inven­tor for his work on the light bulb, the movie cam­era, and the phono­graph. We all know about those achieve­ments, all of which shaped tech­nolo­gies which went on to near-uni­ver­sal use, but have you heard of Edis­on’s still-pio­neer­ing but rather less well-known work in the field of talk­ing dolls?

Many of us in the past few gen­er­a­tions grew up with talk­ing dolls of one kind or anoth­er. But had we been chil­dren in 1890, we might have grown up with the very first talk­ing dolls, for which Edi­son designed an inter­nal mech­a­nism that played one of sev­er­al wax cylin­ders pre-record­ed with var­i­ous child-ori­ent­ed songs, prayers, and nurs­ery rhymes. Or rather, we might have grown up with them if we came from wealthy fam­i­lies: they cost between $10 and $20 in 1890 dol­lars, or up to $526 in today’s dol­lars.

And even at that price, Edis­on’s talk­ing dolls pro­vid­ed not just the low­est of lo-fi lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ences, but resound­ing­ly creepy ones at that. “The pub­lic react­ed as one does when con­front­ed with a grandmother’s mas­sive doll col­lec­tion: You avert­ed your eyes in fear,” writes PBS’ Joshua Bara­jas. “After six weeks into pro­duc­tion, the dolls were deemed too scary and pulled from the mar­ket, the New York Times report­ed.”

Edison dollad

But now, thanks to opti­cal audio-scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy unimag­in­able in Edis­on’s day, we can hear the dolls’ ren­di­tions of “Twin­kle, Twin­kle, Lit­tle Star,” “Hick­o­ry, Dick­o­ry, Dock,” and — most eeri­ly of all — “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” just as the chil­dren of 1890 would have heard them. But even this seri­ous­ly wrong­head­ed-seem­ing prod­uct paved the way for not just the less dis­turb­ing Fur­bys and Ted­dy Rux­pins of more recent child­hoods, but, giv­en its unprece­dent­ed use of auto record­ings made for enter­tain­ment pur­pos­es, the entire record indus­try — and, of course, the minor but robust sub­genre of talk­ing-doll hor­ror movies.

via PBS News Hour

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Thomas Edi­son and Niko­la Tes­la Face Off in “Epic Rap Bat­tles of His­to­ry”

A Brief, Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Thomas Edi­son (and Niko­la Tes­la)

Thomas Edi­son & His Trusty Kine­to­scope Cre­ate the First Movie Filmed In The US (c. 1889)

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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