Phonograph Doll

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Phonograph Doll, with a phonograph to its left and a cylindrical record to its right (Formanek-Brunell 46).

The phonograph doll was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in the late nineteenth century, following his invention of the phonograph. The doll, normally around twenty-two inches in length, was "bisque-headed...with jointed arms and legs, but her body was made of thin strong steel capable of carrying the mechanism" (Hillier, Dolls 191). This mechanism, of course, was a miniature phonograph that functioned by being continuously wound from the doll's back. This phonograph normally played nursery rhymes, providing an unconvincing illusion of a "talking doll."

The "Talking Head" Realized: Beginnings and Patents

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Diagram of the phonograph within the doll's chest from Edison's patent.

The phonograph doll evolved alongside Edison’s invention of and continuous improvements upon the phonograph. Although he did not patent the idea until several years later, the “earliest mention of incorporating an Edison phonograph into a doll or other toy is November 23, 1877,” on a laboratory note sheet upon which Edison wrote, “I propose to apply the phonograph principle to make dolls speak, sing, cry, and make various sounds” (Welch 47). Initially, Edison’s plan was to “build up a doll around a phonograph but it was obviously more practical to use factory made doll parts and place a miniature phonograph within” (Hillier, Automata 93). Thus in his 1891 patent for improving phonograph dolls, Edison claims that his “invention relates mainly to reproducing phonographs designed to be enclosed in dolls or other toys bearing a short sound-record intended to be reproduced as often as required” (Edison 1). The idea here, therefore, was using Edison’s innovation of the phonograph, making it miniature, placing it within a tin casing that served as the doll’s chest, and attaching pre-made doll parts to this central mechanism. These doll appendages were imported from around the country, while the bisque heads were usually imported from Germany.


How The Doll Functioned

An extremely detailed description of how the doll functioned was provided in an 1890 article from Scientific American:

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Phonograph Dolls being manufactured at the Edison plant (Formanek-Brunell 55).

"...its body is made of tin, and the interior thereof is filled with mechanism very much like that of the commercial phonograph, but of course much more simple and inexpensive. The cylinder of the phonograph...carries a ring of wax-like material, upon which is recorded the speech or song to be repeated by the doll. Upon the same shaft with the record cylinder there is a large pulley which carries a belt for driving the flywheel shaft at the lower part of the phonographic apparatus. The key is fitted to the main shaft, by which the phonographic cylinder is rotated, and the flywheel tends to maintain a uniform speed. Above the record cylinder is arranged a diaphragm, such as is used in the regular phonograph, carrying a reproducing stylus, which is mounted on the lower lever in the same manner as the regular phonograph. The funnel at the top of the phonographic apparatus opens underneath the breast of the doll, which is perforated to permit the sound to escape. By the simple operation of turning the crank any child can make the doll say, 'Mary had a little lamb,' 'Jack and Jill,' or whatever it was, so to speak, taught to say in the phonograph factory" (Scientific American).

NOTE language of last sentence..***


Pops, Hisses, and "Voices of...Little Monsters"

Considering that this critical technique was borne of phonograph recordings’ “pops and hisses,” it is no wonder that the miniature phonographs within these dolls followed suit: these recordings were tainted with actual pops and hisses emblematic of those caused by the original phonograph. But the pops and hisses were not the only audio problem present in phonograph dolls. Various other imperfections in caused mounds of angry letters to reach Edison’s toy company, complaining of “‘loose works,’ dolls that would not talk, and those whose voices were too faint to be heard” (Formanek-Brunell 58). These problems were caused by a defect within the phonograph mechanism: “The diaphragm/stylus assembly simply would not stay in the fine groove of the wax record. Consequently most of the dolls failed to work properly, steadfastly refusing to talk for their owners” (Millard). But even when dolls’ voices were present and could be heard, they were not at all pleasant.

Sound Sample: Brief description and audio of a phonograph doll: (Source: Chautauqua Institution at the Smithsonian)

It is no wonder, then, that one “disgruntled customer complained, ‘The voices of the little monsters are exceedingly unpleasant to hear’” (Formanek-Brunell 58), and that “[o]ne dealer reported that 188 dolls were returned out of 200 sold” (Miller).

Faulty and Fragile Form

Dolls That Were "Made Into Machines"

(aka the obvious)

Encoding/Formal Prohibitions

The "Click"

Digital vs. Analog

Demise and Remediations

Works Cited

  • Edison, Thomas A. "Phonograph-Doll." United States Patent Office. Patent No. 456301. July 21, 1891.
  • "Edison's Phonographic Doll." Scientific American (1845-1908); Apr 26, 1890; Vol. LXII; APS Online pg. 263.
  • Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830-1930. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Hillier, Mary. Automata & Mechanical Toys: An Illustrated History. London: Jupiter Books, 1976.
  • Hillier, Mary. Dolls and Doll-makers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968.
  • Millard, Andre. Edison and the Business of Innovation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
  • Welch, Walter L. From Tinfoil to Stereo: The Acoustic Years of the Recording Industry, 1877-1929. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.