Among his many notable inventions and patents, one Thomas Edison innovation lay hidden for more than a century – recording artists.
In 1890, Edison’s phonograph company produced a line of dolls which recited nursery rhymes. The popular rhymes were recordings of young girls stored on wax cylinders inside the dolls.
The line wasn’t a success. The voices were reportedly too creepy for kids and the recordings wore out quickly.
All up, the company produced the dolls for just six weeks before abandoning the project.
Some survived in the hands of collectors, and fortunately, one couple, Robin and Joan Rolfs, avoided turning the cranks on their dolls for fear of the steel needle inside destroying the recording grooves inside.
The New York Times now reports new technology developed by a US government laboratory has successfully recreated eight tunes from the dolls – without so much as touching them.
Here’s one of several examples now available online at the Thomas Edison Historical Park’s website, courtesy of the Smithsonian:
It was recorded somewhere between February and May 1890.
Here’s another, clearer example from a doll belonging to collector David Heitz:
Engineers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory made it possible by taking images of the tiny hills and grooves in the sound cylinders using a microscope.
According to the NYT’s Ron Cowen:
“Pitch, volume and timbre are all encoded in the hills and valleys and the speed at which the record is played.”
Here’s a picture of one of the wax cylinders being scanned at the Northeast Document Conservation Center last year:
There’s enough material on it for a digital recording to be made and some of the interference removed to make the recitals audible.
It’s a fascinating, but undeniably creepy 125-year-old window to the past. The Thomas Edison Historical Park also has a great collection of photos and news items from the short time the dolls were in production.
You can listen to all eight digitised Edison Talking Doll recordings online here.
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