Hey doll, look what you've done

The oldest surviving recording of an American woman's voice comes not from a popular song or radio programme, but from a talking toy, invented by Thomas Edison, pictured, in 1877.

Monday, 18th December 2017, 7:08 am
Updated Monday, 18th December 2017, 8:10 am

Edison’s Phonograph Dolls were two feet tall with eerie glass eyes and wooden limbs. They played wax cylinder recordings of nursery rhymes. Edison thought they would be a huge hit and the perfect vehicle to showcase the newly invented phonograph (as it turned out music was a better fit).

But the toy was expensive, awkward to use, and broke easily. And perhaps more importantly, the sound emerging from the speaker in the doll’s metal chest cavity was incredibly creepy.

You can find the screeching recordings online to hear for yourself, but be warned, you may not sleep well afterwards. Only around 500 were made before the toy was discontinued. But despite being a flop, Edison’s Phonograph Dolls anticipated a future when child’s play would change and imagination would be augmented with technology.

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And looking around now it can seem like this has come to pass. Console games have been stealing attention from traditional toymakers since the launch of Atari in the 1970s. Many of the toys I remember playing with on Christmas mornings needed – though did not include – batteries. The recent emergence of smartphones and tablets has made screen-based play familiar even to toddlers, which is probably not a good thing (except on planes and in restaurants, where it is the greatest ever invention).

But the global toy market is not as high tech as you might imagine. One of the biggest toy crazes in recent times was the fidget spinner – little more than a ball bearing and some plastic. And of the best selling toys in 2017, the majority are analogue – from Lego sets and Nerf guns to Barbie dolls and Pokémon cards. Not that the toy giants are resting on their play bricks. Mattel has hired a former Google executive as CEO, Hasbro is busy launching apps, and Lego has created an innovation department they call Future Lab. Edison’s Phonograph Dolls might have the last (creepy) laugh yet.

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design