Thomas Edison’s Eerie Talking Dolls Speak After a Century of Silence

An Edison phonograph exhibit with a talking doll in Paris, 1889. Image Credit: National Park Service 

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. 

Talking doll manufacture, circa 1890 Image Credit: National Park Service

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.  

Edison and his phonograph, 1870s. Image Credit: Levin C. Handy via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

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 todayOnly 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. 

[h/t: Smithsonian]

Begins and Ends: European Cities
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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