Edison’s Talking Dolls: “Little Monsters”


A government laboratory has worked a way to play back the recordings on fragile wax cylinders, which were the working vocals of the dolls made by Thomas Edison in 1890.



Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Co. Inc. Maine 1887 – 1895 (Photo Courtesy of: Robin & Joan Rolfs)

Edison employed an army of hundreds of girls, (according to Randall Stross –The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World), giving each doll her individual voice. 

Sound Recordings

A depiction of a young lady staffed by Edison, recording voice onto Edison’s recording device


The New York Times reports:

In 1890, Edison’s dolls were a flop; production lasted only six weeks. Children found them difficult to operate and more scary than cuddly. The recordings inside, which featured snippets of nursery rhymes, wore out quickly.

 Yet sound historians say the cylinders were the first entertainment records ever made, and the young girls hired to recite the rhymes were the world’s first recording artists.

Year after year, the Rolfses asked experts if there might be a safe way to play the recordings. Then a government laboratory developed a method to play fragile records without touching them.

Cylinders carry sound in a spiral groove cut by a phonograph recording needle that vibrates up and down, creating a surface made of tiny hills and valleys. In the Irene set-up, a microscope perched above the shaft takes thousands of high-resolution images of small sections of the grooves.

Stitched together, the images provide a topographic map of the cylinder’s surface, charting changes in depth as small as one five-hundredth the thickness of a human hair. Pitch, volume and timbre are all encoded in the hills and valleys and the speed at which the record is played.

You can have a listen to:

“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”

“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”

“There Was a Little Girl” – the first recording heard from Edison’s Talking Doll.

There was a little girl,

And she had a little curl

When she was good,

She was very, very good.

But when she was bad, she was horrid.

Right in the middle of her forehead.


Miniature phonograph neatly tucked inside the cavity of a doll


Cylinders for the 6-second recordings were not interchangeable. A child would have to turn the crank at a fairly steady pace to hear the low-quality audio, hissing doll speak.


electric haircut ca. 1920s

French jointed, you say… ahem… moving along…


Many customers returned the dolls for this very reason, as I’m sure you can understand -after having listened to the recordings – good Christians may have thought the dolls to have been possessed by demons. Not many were kept leaving very few in existence today.

Thomas-Edison-talking-dolls Ad

Advertisement for “the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear” (in Edison’s own words), creepy dolls


Some dolls fetched up to $25.00 depending on how fanciful their dress may have been – a full 2 – 4 weeks pay for most folk – and too much cash to waste on a defunct toy which probably induced more nightmares than joy.



Collector Ward Harris holding one of Thomas Edison’s talking dolls – 1949 (Ernest K. Bennett/Associated Press)


The truth of the matter is this. Edison had envisioned the idea of a talking doll as early as 1877, but it was another inventor, William W. Jacques, who first developed a prototype based on Edison’s original tinfoil phonograph. Jacques and his partner Lowell Briggs founded the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company in 1887 with Edison agreeing to lend his name to the planned product in return for royalties and stock ownership. Before production began, however, Edison took over the company, demoting the founder and leading to years of ill-will and lawsuits. – Scripophily

Oh, Karma. You always find your man! What could have been, if there had been no back-stabbing demotions?

Edison Stock certificate 2

Edison Stock Certificate printed by the American Banknote Company, NY – 1889. Signatures of Company President, William W. Jacques and Secretary, Lowell Briggs


Edison Stock certificate

Edison Stock Certificate printed by the American Banknote Company, NY. – 1889.  Santa and his reindeer

– altered by Hystoria

This entry was posted in Children, Entertainment, Games & Toys, Inventions, Technology, Wartime and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s