Edison's Talking Dolls Can Now Provide The Soundtrack To Your Nightmares

Loading
Error

/

Download
Embed Code

Copy/paste the following code

Donate

Thomas Edison's talking dolls were reportedly pretty robust, but their miniature phonographs were another story. (Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park)
Thomas Edison's talking dolls were reportedly pretty robust, but their miniature phonographs were another story. (Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park)

Back in 1890, Thomas Edison gave us the world's first talking dolls. Today, the glassy-eyed cherubs that are still around stand about 2 feet tall; they have wooden limbs and a metal body; and they sound supercreepy. (If you're looking for a soundtrack to your nightmares, listen to the audio story above.) Edison built and sold about 500 of them back in 1890. Now, new technology has made hearing them possible for the first time in decades.

Jerry Fabris, who curates sound recordings at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, says part of what makes the recordings so unsettling is that they were most likely read by a female factory worker imitating a little girl. (For example: Here's a shrieking recitation of "A Child's Prayer" that you will never unhear.)

Fabris says Edison was, for the first time, trying to market the then-brand-new wax cylinder phonograph for people to use at home, and he thought the best vehicle would be a doll. Its metal body held a miniature phonograph that was spring-activated by a crank sticking out of the doll's back. Edison knew the sound quality was raw, so he had the dolls recite recognizable verses like "Hickory Dickory Dock."

The recordings didn't sound much better in 1890 than they do today. Fabris says, "Edison himself thought they were unpleasant." And so did everyone else. The dolls flopped in the market, not because people thought they were creepy but because they were expensive — about $200 in today's money. People also thought the dolls weren't lifelike enough; they wanted moving mouths and for the dolls' voices to be understandable. Edison stopped making the dolls after about a month.

"After the business failed, he referred to them as 'little monsters,' " Fabris says.

The dolls held a miniature phonograph that was spring-activated by a crank sticking out of the doll's back.
The dolls held a miniature phonograph that was spring-activated by a crank sticking out of the doll's back.

And that raises a larger question: Why do we find talking dolls so scary? Talking toys occupy a horror subgenre so established that it's led to parodies. According to Georgetown University horror scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott, a talking toy belongs in an unsettling middle space: It's human, but not that human.

"It's both familiar and different," she says, "and we don't kind of understand if it's entirely dead or entirely alive."

It's what Sigmund Freud called "the uncanny," and we can feel it as a subconscious holdover from childhood, when we pretended our dolls were real. Even as knowing grown-ups, Benson-Allott says, there's a lurking apprehension "that that doll is actually alive and watching me."

She says we've probably freaked ourselves out with dolls for as long as we've used dolls — in ritual and in play. From a talking doll to technology, she says, when we give anything power there's a sense — even a fear — that that power might turn back on us.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related NPR Stories:

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There's no way to transition to this, so here is one of the world's first talking dolls.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLL TALKING)

EDISON TALKING DOLL: Little Jack Horner sat in the corner eating a Christmas pie...

SIEGEL: That's easy for her to say. Actually, the doll there was reciting the nursery rhyme "Little Jack Horner." You can thank Thomas Edison for providing the soundtrack to your nightmares. Edison built and sold around 500 of these talking dolls back in 1890. NPR's Neda Ulaby says new technology has made hearing them possible for the first time in decades.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: And you may never un-hear this glassy-eyed cherub shrieking out a child's prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLL TALKING)

EDISON TALKING DOLL: Now lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

ULABY: That's most likely one of Edison's female factory workers imitating a little girl, or so says Jerry Fabris. He curates sound recordings at Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Fabris says Edison was, for the first time, trying to market the then-brand-new wax cylinder phonograph for people to use at home. He thought the best vehicle would be a doll.

JERRY FABRIS: About two-feet tall, it would have wooden arms and legs.

ULABY: Encased in its metal body was a miniature phonograph spring-activated by a crank sticking out of the doll's back. Edison knew the sound quality was raw, so he had the dolls recite recognizable versus, like "Hickory Dickory Dock."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLL TALKING)

EDISON TALKING DOLL: Hickory Dickory Dock, the mouse ran up the clock.

ULABY: Were these pleasant to listen to back in 1890?

FABRIS: No, I don't think so. Edison himself thought they were unpleasant.

ULABY: So did everyone else. The dolls flopped in the market, not because people thought they were creepy, but because they were expensive - about $200 in today's money. And people thought the dolls were not lifelike enough. They wanted moving mouths and the doll's voices to be understandable. Edison stopped making the talking dolls after about a month.

FABRIS: After the business failed, he referred to them as little monsters.

ULABY: Which raises a larger question - why do we find talking dolls so scary?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHILD'S PLAY")

BRAD DOURIF: (As Chucky) Hi, I'm Chucky. Want to play?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Screams).

ULABY: Talking toys occupy their own horror subgenre that led to their own parodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TWILIGHT ZONE")

JUNE FORAY: (As Talky Tina Doll) My name is Talky Tina, and I love you very much.

TELY SAVALAS: (As Erich Streator) Will you shut that thing off?

FORAY: (As Talky Tina Doll) My name is Talky Tina, and I think I could even hate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Clown Doll) I'm Krusty the Clown, and I don't like you.

(As Homer Simpson) (Laughter).

(As Krusty the Clown Doll) I'm Krusty the Clown, and I'm going to kill you.

(As Homer Simpson) (Laughter) Didn't even pull the string that time.

ULABY: A talking toy belongs in an unsettling middle space, says horror scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott. It's human, but not that human.

CAETLIN BENSON-ALLOTT: Where it's both familiar and different, and we don't kind of understand if it's entirely dead or entirely alive.

ULABY: It's what Sigmund Freud called the uncanny, she says. And we can feel it as a subconscious holdover from childhood when we pretend our dolls are real. Even as knowing grown-ups, it's that lurking apprehension, she says...

BENSON-ALLOTT: That that doll is actually alive and watching me.

ULABY: Benson-Allott says we've probably freaked ourselves out with dolls for as long as we've used dolls in rituals and in playing. When we give anything power, she says, from a talking doll to technology, there's a sense - even a fear - that that power might turn back on us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLL TALKING)

EDISON TALKING DOLL: Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.