Listen to the creepy voices of Thomas Edison's talking dolls

A new technique for salvaging recordings from delicate antiques has allowed Thomas Edison's talking dolls to find their lost voices.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

This Thomas Edison talking phonograph doll that recites "Jack and Jill" is housed at the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Institution

Talking dolls designed by famous inventor Thomas Edison can speak again, thanks to a new method of audio reclamation pioneered by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in collaboration with the Library of Congress.

Edison launched the talking dolls onto the market in 1890, when audio recording was brand new. The system invented by Edison involved recording sound in grooves on wax or tin cylinders (the phonograph cylinder), and a small enough cylinder could fit quite neatly inside a doll's hollow torso.

There's only a small number of the dolls still remaining in the world, most in the hands of private collectors. Thomas Edison National Historical Park managed to obtain one of these talking dolls, but the cylinder was so distorted from its original shape that it could not be played at all.

Talking doll illustration with its back open from the April 26, 1890 issue of Scientific American. Public domain

This is where the new high-tech audio reclamation system comes in. Called IRENE-3D, it uses a three-dimensional optical scanning system that creates a digital model of the surface of a phonograph, such as the phonograph cylinders inside Edison's dolls.

These models are then analysed to digitally reproduce the audio recorded on the phonograph, converting it into a WAV file.

Using this technique, the team was able to capture the grooves of the distorted cylinder -- catalogued as National Parks artifact EDIS 1279 -- in 2011, prior to which only two recordings had been digitised. It played back the voice of a young woman reciting the first stanza of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

The use of IRENE-3D became more widely available through the efforts of the Northeast Document Conservation Centre in 2013, and in August 2014, the Thomas Edison National Historical Park used the technology to digitise three more cylinders: two more recordings of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and a recording of nursery rhyme "There Was a Little Girl."

To this date, the team has digitised four recordings using IRENE-3D, and another using an Archaeophone cylinder playback machine. Other recordings collated by the Thomas Edison National Historical Park include one recorded by using a custom playback apparatus; another on to analog tape using the doll's original mechanism in 1984; and another was recorded on to analog tape in the 1970s using an unknown playback method.

Listening to them, we can sort of see why the dolls weren't too popular. Especially "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," possibly the most horrifying children's prayer ever written. Have a listen to a sampling below, and head over to the Historical Park's website for the rest.

"Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" (recorded on custom apparatus in 2002)

"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (recorded using IRENE-3D from distorted cylinder)

"Little Jack Horner" (recorded using the doll's own mechanism on to analog tape in 1984)

The talking doll isn't as strange an idea as it sounds. The first patent for a talking doll was taken out in 1823 or 1824, and it wasn't long before the toys hit the market, using a weighted mechanism or an internal bellows to provide a reasonable facsimile of the word "Mama."

Edison first conceived of his more high-tech talking dolls in 1878 when he invented the cylinder phonograph -- the earliest commercial method of sound recording and playback. The dolls weren't released until almost a decade later, but they have the distinction of being the first recorded home entertainment recorded audio consumer product.

Edison's dolls didn't really take off, which was unfortunate for the history of audio recordings.

But maybe that's no so bad. There's something rather unnerving about talking toys to begin with (we're looking at you, Jill, Teddy Ruxpin and especially Furby), but once you add "19th century" to that formula, you have a really good recipe for a prop in a haunted house.