Cool Toy of the Day: The Edison Talking Doll

Edison Talking Doll with mechanism

As Christmas draws near and we’re all shopping for the newest electronic devices, I thought we’d step back a few years to one of the earliest technology-driven toys.

In 1890 Thomas Edison began selling the very first talking doll. It was quite a technological achievement at the time. Aside from being the first of a long line of talking toys, it was also the very first phonograph marketed for home entertainment with a pre-recorded cylinder.

The Edison Talking Doll stood 22 inches high and weighed four pounds. It was constructed with a metal body and articulated wooden arms and legs. There were two versions of bisque heads, one from Simon & Halbig and one from Bahr & Proschild. The price was $10 with a simple chemise, or $20-25 with full dress.

The dolls came with a mechanism inside that would play a short nursery rhyme when the handle was turned. There were 12 available titles such as Little Jack Horner or Mary Had a Little Lamb and the disks were not interchangeable. There was no motor mechanism, so children were expected to crank the motor at a steady rate in order to hear the recording properly.

The very first doll was sent to the Emperor of Germany and a few others were sent to various other important people. They first went on sale at the Lenox Lyceum in New York on April 7, 1890. The price of the doll was fairly steep at the time, equal to about two weeks salary for the average person. Apparently it got a lot of attention in the press. The Oroville Mercury stated "Toydom will be revolutionized". They may have been right about that, but they were not accurate on the success of the Edison Talking Doll.

Edison Talking Doll cylinder reproduction

Unfortunately the dolls were only marketed for a few weeks. Although they had shipped 2,500 dolls, only about 500 were ever sold, and many of those were returned by unhappy customers. Production ended the beginning of May, 1890 and the dolls were withdrawn from the market.

There were many problems with the dolls. The biggest being that the recordings were not terribly good. There was no way to mass-produce the cylinders, so each one had to be recorded individually in wax on the disk. Edison himself commented that “the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear.” You can hear them yourself at this website.

Because the disks were recorded in wax, they soon wore out. The disks were also not stable and eventually cracked. For this reason, there are none of the originals available today.

Recording the dolls voice

There were also legal problems that may have led to the end of production. Edison had an arrangement with Bell for the wax recording method used in the dolls, but it only applied to dictating machines. He apparently decided to stretch that agreement to cover the dolls, but Bell did not agree and apparently took legal action, possibly stopping the sale of the dolls.

All the returned dolls, along with all the remaining stock had their phonographs removed and were then sold off cheaply. For this reason, most dolls that survive today have no mechanism, or are fitted with a reproduction mechanism. Reproduction disks are also available which incorporate wire mesh in them to eliminate the cracking problem. They sell for about $100.00.

There were other legal problems as well. William W. Jacques actually developed the first prototype for the doll based on Edison’s original tinfoil recording method. Jacques and his partner Lowell Briggs licensed the Edison name and began the Edison Phonography Toy Manufacturing Company in order to produce the dolls. However, Edison soon took over the company even before the dolls were manufactured and demoted the founder, which led to years of lawsuits.

Obviously, for all their faults, it was a milestone in the toy industry. Talking dolls became a standard item and are certainly still popular in various levels of complexity today. A quick search on Amazon for "talking doll" returned 1,650 results. One curious search result is a CD from L. Gonze titled "Ghost Solos" which features the Edison Talking Doll recording of Little Jack Horner".

Continue below for some additional photos!

Closeup of the talking mechanism
Edison’s Talking Doll unclothed
Engraving showing operation
I talk!
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