The doom-laden 19th century talking dolls
Now we can hear the first talking dolls, and they are terrifying.
For more elegant and courageous generations than our own, there were talking dolls made of porcelain. Beings with hand-painted faces and robotic torsos and with an internal sound mechanism, activated by screws and, when a handle was turned, repeated a lullaby with the voice of a squirrel that would give anybody, child or adult, the shivers. The first of these were manufactured by none other than Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the phonograph and the telephone, in 1890. But for decades no one had been able to hear them.
The first and only production of those dolls was a fiasco that only lasted six months. Unsurprisingly, children were scared by the voices, which turned sweet nursery rhymes into songs of terror. But beyond their power to scare away customers, the dolls contained the first recorded entertainment ever made and the young girls hired to record the songs were the first recording artists in history. But there are very few of these dolls left.
Among their collection of Edison’s phonographs, the collectors Robin and Joan Rolfs have a couple of these talking dolls, but they always knew that if they turned the screws in their backs the steel phonograph needle could break or damage the cylinder cogs. So the dolls for years sat silently in a glass case, guarding a message that nobody dared to activate.
In 2014, a US government laboratory developed a method called Irene to play fragile recordings without touching them; this allowed the Rolfs to finally find out how Edison’s dolls’ voices sounded and what they say. The experience was perhaps not very pleasant, but it was extraordinary at the very least.
Today we can all hear them thanks to the fact that, recently the Thomas Edison Historical Park made eight of Edison’s dolls’ recordings available online. Their voices are not comforting and, according to researchers, sound exactly as they did in 1890 because the phonographs were not “optimized to be played in high fidelity.” Which means they always sounded unnatural and distorted.
This combined quality of china dolls (alarming in themselves) with phantasmagorical voices trapped in their torsos, and which emit the sweetest songs of their era, is simply terrifying. It’s enough to listen to these nursery rhymes:
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