Edison’s entrée into sound recording in the 1870s was in some ways an accident. According to DeGraaf, Edison was handling the thin diaphragm the early telephone used to convert words into electromagnetic waves and wondered if reversing the process would allow him to play the words back. It worked. At first, Edison modeled the invention on spools of paper tape or grooved paper discs, but eventually moved on to a tinfoil disc. He developed a hand-cranked machine called the tinfoil phonograph; as he spoke into the machine and cranked the handle, metal points traced grooves into the disc. When he returned the disc to the starting point and cranked the handle again, his voice rang back from the machine. (The machine even worked on Edison’s first test: the children’s rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)
Reporters and scientists were blown away by the invention; DeGraaf argues it helped make Edison a household name. He took the device to demonstrations up and down the East Coast—even making a midnight visit to President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House—and eventually organized exhibitions across the country.
Edison imagined music boxes, talking clocks and dolls, speech education tools and talking books for the blind. But without a clear marketing strategy, the device did not have a target purpose or audience. As the man who ran the exhibition tour told Edison, “interest [was soon] exhausted.” Only two small groups were invested in it, those who could afford to indulge in the novelty and scientists interested in the technology behind it.
The machine also took skill and patience. The tinfoil sheet was delicate and easily damaged, which meant it could only be used once or twice and couldn’t be stored for a long period of time.
When Edison revisited the machine 10 years later, he was more involved in both the marketing and the medium—which he eventually changed to a wax cylinder— and his invention took off.
The Talking Doll
When he opened a lab in West Orange, New Jersey, in late 1887, Edison decided he wanted to turn out new inventions quickly and hand them over to factories to be manufactured and sold; what he earned from those sales would be put back into the lab.
“He didn’t want to do complicated things, he wanted to do projects he could turn out in a short time and [that would] turn a quick profit,” DeGraaf says.
Among the first of these attempts was the talking doll. (If you’ve ever owned a talking doll—and who didn’t love the pull-string Woody from Toy Story—you ought to thank Edison.) Edison crafted a smaller version of his phonograph and put it inside dolls he imported from Germany. He hoped to have the doll ready for Christmas 1888, but production issues kept the toys from hitting the market until March 1890.
Almost immediately, the toys began coming back.