In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison got into the doll business. Not long after inventing the phonograph, the prolific entrepreneur imagined a line of toys that would make various sounds, like a train that would imitate the puff of steam exhaust, dogs that could bark, and dolls that could speak. Talking dolls were already a popular toy among children of the time, but they relied upon primitive technology to imitate simple words like “mama” and “papa.” Edison’s dolls would feature actual recordings of human speech, turned on by cranking a shaft in the doll's back.
Recently, the fragile dolls began to speak again, thanks to a new technology that can reconstruct audio from previously unplayable recordings, developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Library of Congress. In April, the National Park Service posted eight Edison Talking Dolls recordings created in the late 1880s on its website.
Edison’s talking dolls recited nursery rhymes like “Jack and Jill,” “Little Jack Horner,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” by means of a tiny cylindrical phonograph inserted into the doll’s body. At first, Edison tried making the recordings himself. As it happened, people thought a delicate doll of a young girl, rosy-cheeked and waxen-faced, sounded weird emitting the voice of a gruff adult man, so he eventually hired a team of young women, who were paid a few cents per record they made. (Arguably, these ladies were the world’s first recording artists.) The audio in the prototypes wasn’t entirely clear, so Edison and his team wanted the dolls to recite snippets of poems and rhymes people already knew.
Though he had worked on the doll concept for more than a decade, the experimental toys proved to be unpopular playthings. One Washington Post headline when the dolls debuted read “DOLLS THAT TALK. They Would Be More Entertaining if You Could Understand What They Say,” as historian Patrick Feaster writes in his excellent cultural history of the toys. And they were relatively expensive: An undressed doll cost $10 in 1890, around $267 today. Only a month after the debut launch in April 1890, Edison ceased production, having sold only 500 dolls. Many of the remaining dolls were sold sans-phonograph.
Dolls are already the world’s creepiest playthings, lodged deeply in the uncanny valley, that weird purgatory where things look almost human, but just off enough to unsettle. Imagine a glass-eyed baby doll that emits an unintelligible, high-pitched crackling voice from a mouth that doesn’t move, and you’ve got an Edison Talking Doll. (The New York Times has some great photos of them.) Thanks, modern technology, for allowing these eerie, century-old doll voices to haunt our dreams yet again.
Listen to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" below, and check out all the tracks from the National Park Service.
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.
1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.
Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”
When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.
Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.
3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.
The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.
4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.
Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.
Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.
Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.
Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.
5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.
Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.
When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.
Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”
As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.
7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.
People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.
How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”
8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.
Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.
9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.
In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.
10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.
In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.
Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?
Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.
Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.
That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.
Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.
In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.
The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.