Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor and businessman who patented 1,093 projects (most of them inventions of other people that he bought and patented as his own), a famous for his version of the light bulb. Although he was not the first person who invented it (Heinrich Göbel had preceded him 25 years before), and not even being the inventor himself as it was developed in his laboratories in Menlo Park, he managed to market it on a lange scale.

Below: picture of Edison with his phonograph

Long time before starting his laboratories in Menlo Park, in 1877 Edison had been inventor himself, giving life to the “phonographer”, a tool which translated the theories of other scientists into the practice of a functioning device. The phonographer would record sounds on a tin cylinder which then were playable, although in a very low quality and that were overwriting during the playing time.

Some years later, in 1890, Edison started selling a speaking doll.

The Edison Talking Doll

To market the dolls he founded the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company, society which produced dolls with a tiny phonographer, to activate through a crank inside the chest of the doll.

Below: the Edison Talking Doll. Picture by Kai Schreiber shared via Flickr – licence Creative Commons 2.0

Sold during the Christmas holidays of 1890, the dolls had a huge success, which lasted only for a few weeks though. The toy was extremely fragile but the main issue was in the speaking voice:

it was completely terrifying

Below: one of the dolls from a Museum. Picture by Mabalu shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Below: the rear of the doll. Picture by Mabalu shared  via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The doll was supposed to recite a few childish nursery rhymes such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, “Jack and Jill”, “Hickory Dickory Dock”, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”. The reproduced sounds were in reality closer to horror films. Below the recording

Besides the terrifying voice, the doll was excessively fragile with her wooden limbs, the porcelain head and an unsettling vitreous glance. The press welcomed the doll with enthusiasm at the very beginning but some days later they started making fun of the invention. The Washington Post titled one of its articles:

“Dolls which talk: it’d be fun if you could figure out what they say”

The experiment was in the end a complete failure. Edison sold around 500 dolls (only a few are left intact to this day) at the price of 20 dollars dressed and 10 dollars undressed, comparable to nowadays 560 and 280 dollars. After 6 weeks the dolls were withdrawn by the shelves of the shops and some months after the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company went out of business.

The dolls factory shut down

The American businessman, main character of controversial episodes such as the killing of the elephant Topsy during the “War of the Currents”,  referred to his old dolls as “little monsters”.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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