A child wanders into the playroom and picks up her favorite doll, immaculately dressed in the latest doll fashions. The doll begins to scream, "LITTLE JACK HORNER," but the word "Horner" sounds more like "Murder." The child removes the doll's carefully chosen outfit, scrambling to find a way to silence the creature for good, only to find that its torso is a terrible metal box. The Satanic Joan of Arc howls through a mandala of puncture wounds in its upper chest, "WHAT A GOOD BOY AM I." A childhood has forever ended.
It may sound like the beginning of a nightmare, but Thomas Edison came close to making this scenario (with a few artistic liberties) a reality, thanks to his infamous talking dolls. The failed toy was only in production for six weeks in 1890, but remains historically significant. Although the execution was less than ideal -- the dolls broke extremely easily, for one thing -- they were the first of their kind.
Now, they're collectors' items. Recently, a handful of recordings extracted -- with the greatest care -- from the little wax and tin cylinders inside a few of those dolls were made available online. With the newest recordings, posted online last month by the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, there are now eight total audio files available from these dolls.
Here are a few, via the National Park Service:
"There Was a Little Girl" (extremely low audio quality)
We are living in a creepy Edison doll recording boom time: Just two Edison recordings were available before 2011. The Horner recording from the above nightmare was one of them (former and current aficionados of the "weird audio" parts of the Web have probably heard it). That recording might be the only known example of a recording taken from an Edison doll by actually operating the doll itself as intended, the park says. Here's what then-curator Edward Pershey recalls of how that recording came to be:
It was sometime around 1984 that a gentleman from Montclair, if I remember correctly, walked into the museum entrance with an Edison Talking Doll. It was in pristine condition, in an original box, and had the original instructions. He offered to play the doll by turning the crank on the back, and so I asked him to wait a few minutes. I ran to my office to retrieve a cassette tape recorder. (High tech!) We set up the recorder in front of the doll and he cranked away. The doll uttered the first lines of the nursery rhyme "Little Jack Horner."
The New York Times highlighted a couple of the new recordings from the collection of Robin and Joan Rolfs. The collectors, experts on Edison's phonographs, were afraid to be so bold as the renegade Horner gentleman: Wax cylinders are delicate, and attempting to play a doll's recording by turning its little crank could easily destroy them. Some of the remaining dolls are too distorted to use any sort of method that involves contact with the actual surface of the cylinder.
So the two recordings from the Rolfs dolls, along with those from a few others, were accessed though a new process that creates a digital image of the cylinder's surface. According to the Times, it's akin to creating a detailed topographic map of the grooves and hills on the surface of the cylinder.
The process is called IRENE-3D, and it's the result of a years-long development process from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, the park says.
Once a digital image of the cylinder is made, a computer "plays" the result to produce an audio file, and it works pretty well, after the files are cleaned up. In all, the method produced four new recordings, according to the park: one from a heavily damaged tin cylinder used early in the doll's production, and three from wax cylinders.
The resulting recordings, taken from the voices of more than a dozen young girls hired at cents per record to recite nursery rhymes, may not be as sweet as Edison intended. But they are, as it turns out, a vast improvement over some of Edison's early prototypes. Those dolls, like the manufactured ones recorded by the park, were also fashioned to look like little girls. But instead they spoke with Edison's own adult male voice.
Here is a description of one such doll from an 1888 edition of the New York Evening Sun:
Here Mr. Edison wound up a sweet little creature as an illustration of his last remark. In a hoarse, husky, deep tone the doll growled out these words: "Oh, dear mamma, your dollie is tired now; put me in my little bed, dear mamma." The effect was more amusing and instructive than natural.
Edison told the reporter that those particular dolls "are not a glowing success."
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