Listen to the Newly Reconstructed, Very Creepy Voices of Thomas Edison’s Dolls

A lab figured out how to hear the rare talking dolls without damaging the original recordings

An original schematic of Thomas Edison's speaking doll showing the phonograph mechanism inside (Corbis)
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In 1890, Thomas Edison’s phonograph company made dolls that spoke when a crank in their back was turned. For years, no one had heard the rhymes and songs recorded in these dolls. But recently, two dolls’ voices were heard once again, reports Ron Cowen for The New York Times

The dolls hold a "hollow, ring-shaped cylinder" made of wax and inscribed with grooves that can be read by a tiny steel phonograph needle. However, the two dolls, owned by Robin and Joan Rolfs remained silent, stored in a cabinet for fear that the needle would damage the sound recordings they contained. The dolls don’t hold the very first sound recordings, but they were important. Cowen writes:

[S]ound 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.

The technology that can read the recordings etched in the cylinder was developed by Carl Haber, a physicist, and Earl Cornell, an engineer, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It first images the miniscule "hills and valleys" in the recording grooves using a microscope. "Pitch, volume and timbre are all encoded in the hills and valleys and the speed at which the record is played," writes Cowen. Then a digital version of the recording can be constructed and some of the obscuring noise removed using the computer. 

Experts at the Thomas Edison Historical Park posted the recordings online last month. “We are now hearing sounds from history that I did not expect to hear in my lifetime,” Jerry Fabris, the park’s curator, told The Times

The songs and nursery rhymes recited by girls long ago are scratchy, fuzzy and of poor quality, but they are audible. They include the rhyme "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,"  the song "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and a third rhyme "There Was a Little Girl." The words for that last are as follows:

There was a little girl,

And she had a little curl

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very, very good.

But when she was bad, she was horrid.

If the recordings sound a little creepy, apparently that isn’t just modern preferences coloring the experience. Cowen writes:

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 also wore out quickly, so using the imaging and digitizing technology is the best way to hear the dolls. Other dolls are likely out there, Fabris told The Times. He hopes that collectors holding them will now be inspired to seek out a way to make their own dolls sing and speak once again.

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