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
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. The most important part of the doll, however (the phonograph), were manufactured in Edison's labs in New Jersey.
The image to the left is a diagram taken from Edison's patent for phonograph dolls. Analyzing this image (and the image of a phonograph doll to the upper-right), one can note the odd wax cylinder/disc hybrid that was invented solely for the miniature phonograph within the doll. It's as if Edison took the top of a wax cylinder and cut off a small piece, so it looks like a hollow disc with grooves all around the perimeter instead of on either side. This was probably done solely for spatial purposes and to hold the small nursery rhymes, chatter, and songs that were emitted from these dolls. Regardless, it's still interesting to see this mix of new and old media for a miniature phonograph, a type of mix that we have not seen since.
How the Doll Functioned
An extremely detailed description of how the doll functioned was provided in an 1890 article from Scientific American:
"...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 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: http://exhibit.chautauqua-inst.org/doll.ram (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). With such low customer satisfaction and such a high return rate, it is no wonder that the doll failed in the marketplace.
Faulty and Fragile Form
Many of the inner workings of the doll failed to function correctly because the entire doll was fragile, unsafe, and cumbersome. Edison was a man of machines and gadgets, not toys, so he clearly did not realize the doll’s impracticalities when placed in the hands of children. He’d thought only about amusement over safety and comfort. The bisque head was fragile (since it is made of unglazed porcelain), the four-pound body was too heavy, and the metal chest encasement was too dangerous. Therefore, “a heavy doll that slipped out of cradling arms was far more likely to injure the child than suffer any harm itself” (Formanek-Brunell 58). However, it is also clear that if the doll’s outer parts could easily break, the inner phonograph could be knocked out of place as well. Perhaps this fragile form is what made faulty phonographs within the doll so common.
Even if safety and comfort are pushed to the wayside, one can also deduce that the doll's functionality as an amusement was not very high. The inner phonograph only worked if a rotating handle at the doll's rear was constantly wound. No child wants to play with a heavy doll that requires continuous physical effort in order to produce an off-putting sound. Most likely, all of these limitations could explain why the doll's production was eventually halted.
The Doll is a Machine, Not a Toy
The phonograph doll was created at the peak of industry and innovation at the end of the nineteenth century. So how did inventors respond to the always-present demand for new toys? By turning them into machines, of course, making their appearance mimic that of the factories in which they were made. The phonograph doll represents not only repeatable, weak, one-way communication through a “miniature” medium, but also its larger time period; this aspect is "the obvious." The phonograph within the doll makes this the most obvious, since there was literally a new communicative technology within a child’s toy right after this medium was invented. But “the obvious” is less obvious when one looks at the appearance of the doll. The head, arms, and legs look no different from any other doll, no doubt because these parts were imported from around the country and Europe. What one must take note of is the doll’s tin chest, or the encasement for the miniature phonograph, and the handle that protrudes from behind the doll. The fact that the doll is a machine was not hidden, and the illusion of a “talking doll” seemed to be intentionally hindered. It’s as if Edison wished for consumers to understand that the doll was more an intricate mechanism than it was a toy, though its aim was to entertain. Whereas now, you would never see the inner workings of an audible toy or doll on its outside, back then, it seems as if this was a mark of innovation and modernization.
scientific american & hillier
Demise and Remediations
- 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.