The phonograph doll was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in the late nineteenth century, following his invention of the phonograph. The doll, normally around twenty-two inches in length, was "bisque-headed...with jointed arms and legs, but her body was made of thin strong steel capable of carrying the mechanism" (Hillier, Dolls 191). This mechanism, of course, was a miniature phonograph that functioned by being continuously wound from the doll's back. This phonograph normally played nursery rhymes, providing an unconvincing illusion of a "talking doll."
The "Talking Head" Realized: Beginnings and Patents
The phonograph doll evolved alongside Edison’s invention of and continuous improvements upon the phonograph. Although he did not patent the idea until several years later, the “earliest mention of incorporating an Edison phonograph into a doll or other toy is November 23, 1877,” on a laboratory note sheet upon which Edison wrote, “I propose to apply the phonograph principle to make dolls speak, sing, cry, and make various sounds” (Welch 47). Initially, Edison’s plan was to “build up a doll around a phonograph but it was obviously more practical to use factory made doll parts and place a miniature phonograph within” (Hillier, Automata 93). Thus in his 1891 patent for improving phonograph dolls, Edison claims that his “invention relates mainly to reproducing phonographs designed to be enclosed in dolls or other toys bearing a short sound-record intended to be reproduced as often as required” (Edison 1). The idea here, therefore, was using Edison’s innovation of the phonograph, making it miniature, placing it within a tin casing that served as the doll’s chest, and attaching pre-made doll parts to this central mechanism. These doll appendages were imported from around the country, while the bisque heads were usually imported from Germany. The most important part of the doll, however (the phonograph), was manufactured in Edison's labs in New Jersey. Once on the shelves, these dolls sold for $10.00 each.
The image to the left is a diagram taken from Edison's patent for phonograph dolls. Analyzing this image (and the image of a phonograph doll to the upper-right), one can note the odd wax cylinder/disc hybrid that was invented solely for the miniature phonograph within the doll. Clearly, this is an analog piece of media. It's as if Edison took the top of a wax cylinder and cut off a small piece, so it looks like a hollow disc with grooves all around the circumference instead of on either side. This was probably done solely for spatial purposes and to hold the small nursery rhymes, chatter, and songs that were emitted from these dolls. Regardless, it's still interesting to see this mix of new and old media for a miniature phonograph, a type of mix that we have not seen since.
How the Doll Functioned
An extremely detailed description of how the doll functioned was provided in an 1890 article from Scientific American:
"...its body is made of tin, and the interior thereof is filled with mechanism very much like that of the commercial phonograph, but of course much more simple and inexpensive. The cylinder of the phonograph...carries a ring of wax-like material, upon which is recorded the speech or song to be repeated by the doll. Upon the same shaft with the record cylinder there is a large pulley which carries a belt for driving the flywheel shaft at the lower part of the phonographic apparatus. The key is fitted to the main shaft, by which the phonographic cylinder is rotated, and the flywheel tends to maintain a uniform speed. Above the record cylinder is arranged a diaphragm, such as is used in the regular phonograph, carrying a reproducing stylus, which is mounted on the lower lever in the same manner as the regular phonograph. The funnel at the top of the phonographic apparatus opens underneath the breast of the doll, which is perforated to permit the sound to escape. By the simple operation of turning the crank any child can make the doll say, 'Mary had a little lamb,' 'Jack and Jill,' or whatever it was, so to speak, taught to say in the phonograph factory" (Scientific American).
This article was written right around the time that these dolls were first invented and placed on the market. Nothing like them had been seen before, so one should note the language of this excerpt, especially the last sentence. Even though the doll was an inanimate object, and the sound quality of the doll's songs and stories was extremely poor, people did not yet know what kind of technological jargon to use when referring to the doll's ability to "produce" sound. The article does not say that the doll does not actually "say" anything, but just serves as an encasement for a phonograph that reproduces sound, but instead that the doll was "taught to speak" in the factory.
Pops, Hisses, and "Voices of...Little Monsters"
Considering that this critical technique was borne of phonograph recordings’ “pops and hisses,” it is no wonder that the miniature phonographs within these dolls followed suit: these recordings were tainted with actual pops and hisses emblematic of those caused by the original phonograph. But the pops and hisses were not the only audio problem present in phonograph dolls. Various other imperfections caused mounds of angry letters to reach Edison’s toy company, complaining of “‘loose works,’ dolls that would not talk, and those whose voices were too faint to be heard” (Formanek-Brunell 58). These problems were caused by a defect within the phonograph mechanism: “The diaphragm/stylus assembly simply would not stay in the fine groove of the wax record. Consequently most of the dolls failed to work properly, steadfastly refusing to talk for their owners” (Millard). But even when dolls’ voices were present and could be heard, they were not at all pleasant.
Sound Sample: Brief description and audio of a phonograph doll: http://exhibit.chautauqua-inst.org/doll.ram (Source: Chautauqua Institution at the Smithsonian)
It is no wonder, then, that one “disgruntled customer complained, ‘The voices of the little monsters are exceedingly unpleasant to hear’” (Formanek-Brunell 58), and that “[o]ne dealer reported that 188 dolls were returned out of 200 sold” (Miller). With such low customer satisfaction and such a high return rate, it is no wonder that the doll failed in the marketplace.
Faulty and Fragile Form
Many of the inner workings of the doll failed to function correctly because the entire doll was fragile, unsafe, and cumbersome. Edison was a man of machines and gadgets, not toys, so he clearly did not realize the doll’s impracticalities when placed in the hands of children. He’d thought only about amusement over safety and comfort. The bisque head was fragile (since it is made of unglazed porcelain), the four-pound body was too heavy, and the metal chest encasement was too dangerous. Therefore, “a heavy doll that slipped out of cradling arms was far more likely to injure the child than suffer any harm itself” (Formanek-Brunell 58). However, it is also clear that if the doll’s outer parts could easily break, the inner phonograph could be knocked out of place as well. Perhaps this fragile form is what made faulty phonographs within the doll so common.
Even if safety and comfort are pushed to the wayside, one can also deduce that the doll's functionality as an amusement was not very high. The inner phonograph only worked if a rotating handle at the doll's rear was constantly wound. No child wants to play with a heavy doll that requires continuous physical effort in order to produce an off-putting sound. Most likely, all of these limitations could explain why the doll's production was eventually halted.
The Doll is a Machine, Not a Toy
The phonograph doll was created at the peak of industry and innovation at the end of the nineteenth century. So how did inventors respond to the always-present demand for new toys? By turning them into machines, of course, making their appearance mimic that of the factories in which they were made. The phonograph doll represents not only repeatable, weak, one-way communication through a “miniature” medium, but also its larger time period; this aspect is "the obvious." The phonograph within the doll makes this the most obvious, since there was literally a new communicative technology within a child’s toy right after this medium was invented. But “the obvious” is less obvious when one looks at the appearance of the doll. The head, arms, and legs look no different from any other doll, no doubt because these parts were imported from around the country and Europe. What one must take note of is the doll’s tin chest, or the encasement for the miniature phonograph, and the handle that protrudes from behind the doll. The fact that the doll is a machine was not hidden, and the illusion of a “talking doll” seemed to be intentionally hindered. It’s as if Edison wished for consumers to understand that the doll was more an intricate mechanism than it was a toy, though its aim was to entertain. Whereas now, you would never see the inner workings of an audible toy or doll on its outside, back then, it seems as if this was a mark of innovation and modernization.
Unknown Girls Recording the Words, Encoding the Message
The cylindrical records within these dolls featured the voices of little girls who worked in factories, and whose voices were recorded as the final step of phonograph doll manufacturing. As described in an 1890 article from Scientific American, the wax-like records "are placed upon an instrument very much like an ordinary phonograph, and in the mouth of which a girl speaks the words to be repeated by the doll. A large number of these girls are continually doing this work. Each one has a stall to herself, and the jangle produced by a number of girls simultaneously repeating [nursery rhymes]...is beyond description. These sounds united with the sounds of the phonographs themselves when reproducing the stories make a veritable pandemonium" (Scientific American). Mary Hillier provides an interesting first-hand description of these girls' work: "Each one sits before a large apparatus, singing, reading, crying, reciting, talking with all the appearance of a lunatic! She dictates to a cylinder of wax the lesson that the little doll must obediently repeat to the day of her death with guaranteed fidelity" (Hillier, Automata 94). Hillier aptly asserts that the "unknown girls who recorded the words in [Edison's] factory achieved a curious immortality" (Hillier, Automata 93). In this way, not only do we see this recurring idea of immortality through the phonograph embodied in these little dolls, but we also see a strict layout of who can "write" the message, even though the "messages" were nursery rhymes and stories well-known in English and American culture. In addition, one can see that each phonograph doll had unique recordings, since these girls needed to repeat the stories over and over again for each individual cylindrical record.
The Doll is the "Click"
Edison did not have to enclose his newly created phonograph in a doll in order for it to be a toy. He could just as easily have created a mini-phonograph to sell from the start as a toy for children. However, the doll had been seen as the standard "toy" for children for centuries, so the only way that a new media technology could be marketed as a toy was to encase it in the most standard toy possible: the doll. In a way, then, the doll exterior itself is the "click" of this medium: it is unnecessary at the material level (since nothing about the doll produces sound or makes the phonograph function), but nevertheless necessary at a semiotic level - the phonograph doll is only a toy because it is a doll. Chances are, it would not have been seen as a toy had the doll not encased the phonograph.
Even though Edison's phonograph doll and its immediate followers were failures, the idea of a "talking doll" has persisted over a century later, with various remediations popping up here and there (from "Chatty Cathy" in the 1960's to talking "Dora the Explorer" and "Barbie" dolls today). However, while these dolls "talk" and sometimes use mini-plastic-"records," they are certainly not phonograph dolls. This clearly makes sense, since the phonograph was extremely faulty, especially when it came to the miniature cylindrical records used for phonograph dolls. But the form of these remediations, especially the earlier ones, mimic Edison's first invention: mechanism inside of the chest/stomch, with a string or button behind the doll to power whatever was "making" sound. Nowadays, these dolls are battery powered.
An example of a remediation of the phonograph doll can be seen in this video from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Z1ZTXW4ZAA . This doll, according to the video's description, is from the 1980's and contains a "mini record player" inside that plays plastic records. One should note that this doll's structure is almost exactly the same as Edison's: audio apparatus in the stomach, sound emits from the chest. The sound quality is not nearly as creepy as the phonograph dolls from a century prior, but it's equally as irritating.
- Edison, Thomas A. "Phonograph-Doll." United States Patent Office. Patent No. 456301. July 21, 1891.
- "Edison's Phonographic Doll." Scientific American (1845-1908); Apr 26, 1890; Vol. LXII; APS Online pg. 263.
- Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830-1930. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
- Hillier, Mary. Automata & Mechanical Toys: An Illustrated History. London: Jupiter Books, 1976.
- Hillier, Mary. Dolls and Doll-makers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968.
- Millard, Andre. Edison and the Business of Innovation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
- Welch, Walter L. From Tinfoil to Stereo: The Acoustic Years of the Recording Industry, 1877-1929. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.