Considered too fragile to ever be played again, the recordings have been newly reconstructed ... and they are wonderfully creepy.
Did you see earlier this year when Mattel was given a prominent place on the hot seat for their wildly awful Hello Barbie? (Read about it here: Is Hello Barbie the creepiest doll of all?) The eavesdropping Barbie engages your daughter in chit-chat and then records and transmits their heart-to-hearts to a corporation far away, where evil marketing geniuses hatch shifty plans, one might assume.
It’s so wrong, and one can only wonder, from where did this diabolical doll come? For that, we can turn back the clock all the way to 1890 when the world’s first real talking doll hit the shelves. Manufactured by Thomas Edison’s phonograph company, the Thomas Edison Talking Dolls spit out snippets of nursery rhymes when a handle on the back was cranked. Alas, they turned out to be a flop. Kids found them hard to operate and – no surprise when you hear the scratchy haunted cooing – frightening; the production ran a mere six weeks.
But the creepy little automatons were actually a milestone-setting innovation in the history and technology of recorded sound, if not in scary dolls. They were the world's first recorded-audio product designed, manufactured, and sold for home entertainment, according to the Thomas Edison National Historic Park; and the girls hired to voice the dolls were the world’s first recording artists.
Given how absurdly interactive kids’ toys are now – oh for the days of unstructured play out in the mud – it’s pretty wild to pinpoint the first talking toys. But the dolls are very rare, and we haven’t really been able to hear what they sounded like because up until recently, the mere act of playing them would likely destroy the wax cylinder on which the recordings live.
Edison collectors Robin and Joan Rolfs own two of the rare talking dolls, which for years sat silently in a display cabinet, muted presumably forever. Experts persisted in being unable to bring the voices to life. But then a government laboratory developed a method to play the fragile recordings without hurting them.
According to The New York Times, the process uses a microscope to create images of the grooves in minute detail. With great accuracy, a computer approximates the sounds that would have been created by a needle moving through those grooves. Last year, the technology was made available for other uses outside of the original lab, and thus the Rolfs' doll’s voices got a chance to come to life.
“The fear all along is that we don’t want to damage these records. We don’t want to put a stylus on them,” said Jerry Fabris, the curator of the Thomas Edison Historical Park in West Orange, N.J. “Now we have the technology to play them safely.”
“We are now hearing sounds from history that I did not expect to hear in my lifetime,” he added.
So how do the dolls sound? Let’s just say that it’s understandable why little girls of 1890 weren’t clamoring to have one. “Soundtrack to your nightmare” comes to mind; “sound effect for horror movie” does as well. But in the chronology of toys that talk, and home entertainment recordings in general, these dolls really do have something to say.
Listen to them here: