Thomas Edison’s Spooky Invention Leaves Us With the Chills
Thomas Edison changed our lives with the invention of the phonograph in 1877 and the light bulb in 1879. What an exceptional human being he was.
But have you heard about his electric pen or his tinfoil phonograph? Well, even the greatest minds don’t succeed every time. Few, however, have gained as much fame as the “monstrosity” that nearly tarnished his career.
Never Gave Up
Thomas Edison was relentless in his pursuit of new ideas. “Many of life’s failures,” he once said, “are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Edison has tremendous determination. If he had an idea for a new product, he would not give up on it until he completed the task. He followed every idea through to its very end, and this worked out well for him. But that very determination led him to spend time on inventions that ended up as failures.
A man of ideas, Edison filed for 1,093 patents over his 84 years. Some of his inventions were important parts of the items we still use daily. How long would it have been until we had lamps, telephones, alkaline batteries, and movie cameras if not for his innovative mind?
It is hard to imagine a person with this much brainpower and the determination to envision and create items for daily use that no one had even imagined. However, there was one area in which he was no genius.
Why Didn’t This Sell?
Paul Israel, in his 1998 book Edison: A Life of Invention, points out that “Fundamentally, I don’t think Edison understood consumer markets all that well.” Edison was busy in his laboratory tinkering away with inventing but didn’t have a clue as to how to convince the public to purchase the new items.
“He was much better at producing technology marketed by either others or for other producers.” This is why those 1,093 patents filed also contained some oddities. And some of those were actually called “monstrosities.”
The Toy Doll
The story of the toy doll starts in Edison’s lab. The doll underwent many experiments which failed, But Edison, as usual, did not give up. He saw each failure as a chance to learn more and refine the invention.
Paul Israel explains, “Edison saw ways to learn, to gain knowledge,” Paul Israel wrote, “But commercial failures, of which the toy doll was clearly one, sometimes they don’t really go anywhere.” Again, Edison’s failure to appreciate the importance of marketing was disastrous.
Edison didn’t actually bother to wonder whether some of his inventions would be of interest to the public. He didn’t do what is called today “market research.” Instead, he followed his gut instinct about what new invention was needed.
That is why inventions like the electric pen (which was overly powerful and tore paper) and an electric vote recorder (which politicians feared would interfere with their political shenanigans) did not succeed. Perhaps, though, his most bizarre idea was the creation of a toy. That did not go well at all.
Drowning in Debt
Edison decided to create the toy doll before doing any sort of surveying of the public. He didn’t know precisely what little girls would be interested in; it was the artistry of the invention itself that challenged him.
As we will see, Paul Israel was right: Edison’s brain was built for science rather than marketing. Since he never tried to figure out what people wanted, his boondoggle of the toy doll almost ruined the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company. The company ended up over $50,000 in debt because of the dolls.
The Doll Herself
The Talking Doll, as he called it, was tall, over 22 inches in height. It was also quite unattractive, with clunky wooden limbs and a creepy stare. Clearly, Edison had never asked a little girl what she’d want her doll to look like.
Those of us who remember the TV program The Twilight Zone might say she looked like a character in one of Rod Serling’s episodes. However, Edison had another plan for the doll, and it involved her being the perfect vessel for another invention.
Tiny Wax Cylinder Phonographs
The invention for which Edison thought the doll was perfect was his wax cylinder phonograph. This invention was made to record up to four minutes of sound and play it back, on demand, at a later date.
It was Edison’s intention to stick this device inside the doll and enable that toy to talk. He imagined a whole line of toys that could talk, sing, or just make noises. Today we are used to talking toys, but at that time, it didn’t go so well.
The Dolls Speak
Edison produced these dolls in April of 1980. They weighed four pounds each, and each had a miniature version of his photograph inside its chest. He imagined that the children would be delighted to hear voices coming out of the dolls.
The dolls did indeed “speak.” The problem was the quality of the recordings. Their renditions of familiar nursery rhymes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Jack and Jill” had a haunting, eerie quality to them that was sure to frighten children.
"For Nice Little Girls"
At first, the press outlets were interested in Thomas Edison’s first toy invention. The toys were targeted at little girls, but Edison’s real interest was promoting the potential of his phonograph to wider audiences.
One press piece, in a 1888 newspaper, titled its article “The Wonderful Toys Which Mr. Edison is Making For Nice Little Girls.” With that kind of coverage, Edison was hoping that by buying their daughters the talking doll, the parents would be enchanted with the phonograph’s abilities.
A First for Recording Artists
The talking doll was nothing less than revolutionary. Aside from the hidden phonograph producing spoken word, it was the first time that people were hired to record sound for commercial use.
So these were the world’s first recording artists, and it was part of Edison’s genius that he invented a way to record voices. Today, recording artists are commonplace, but back in the 19th century, this had never been done before. It was pure magic to the little girls and their parents that the dolls could actually talk.
Edison hired about 20 women to read into his machines over and over again. They recorded nursery rhymes, and at the studio, their voices sounded uplifting and sweet.
The fact is that even though they recorded their sweet voices, the recordings made by the machine were not that lovely. In fact, they were a bit rough and scary. And that’s not all that was wrong with the toy doll invention.
What else went wrong? Well, the little hand crank to wind up the doll was located on the doll’s back and it tended to break easily. The wax record inside the doll was not sturdy either. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
What was worse? The voices coming from the dolls’ tummies were full of static and unclear. Imagine a little girl winding up her doll, expecting to hear a sweet nursery rhyme. What came out of the doll sounded like a frightened child crying for help.
The Dolls Get Returned
With the combination of an unattractive face and a frightening voice, the little girls who had been so excited to receive their talking dolls handed them back to their parents to return. It’s no wonder that a child would feel frightened of a doll like this, sounding like it’s screaming for help.
Edison received a letter from a big toy company, Horace Partridge & Co., in April of 1980. The company stated that many dolls were being returned to the stores. It was apparent to the company which distributed the toys that something was very wrong with this doll.
Scary Dolls, Broken Parts
What made the situation worse, aside from the unattractive aspect of the dolls, was that their parts didn’t seem to work consistently. The toy distributors heard complaints from purchasers that some of the dolls did not talk as promised.
In addition, some did talk, and then the voice inside got fainter and fainter until it stopped. It wasn’t long before word got out that the wondrous doll invented by the famous Thomas Edison was a failure. Many little girls’ hearts were broken when their parents decided to return the new toys.
Thomas Edison, the inventor of so many world-changing gadgets and machines, whose name was associated with brilliance, was now being ridiculed in the press. Reports about the non-working talking doll didn’t take long to spread like wildfire.
The Washington Post even printed a sarcastic headline about Edison in 1890: “Dolls That Talk: They Would Be More Entertaining if You Could Understand What They Say.” Consumers had taken to mocking the great genius, which didn’t sit well with the man himself. Edison decided to do something drastic.
Just before the official launch of the toy dolls, Edison pulled them from the shelves. It is estimated that thousands of these dolls were manufactured, but probably less than 500 actually reached the hands of customers.
Nevertheless, Edison did not consider this incident a complete failure. His characteristic drive kept him going; he had learned to look at “failures” as mere steps to eventual success. He is quoted as saying that people who are considered failures are those who actually come very close to success, and then give up.
Fixing the Problem
Edison did not see the toy doll as a failure. As was his way, he was determined to fix the problem with the doll’s voice. The comments and critiques only energized him to figure out what was wrong.
Edison immersed himself in finding a way to fix the voice and re-releasing the doll in an improved state. He was determined not to give up until he figured out how to improve the sound emanating from the doll. However, he failed to take into account one rather major issue.
Money Money Money
In its improved state, the Talking Doll was extremely expensive, costing ten dollars for an undressed doll and twenty dollars for one with clothing. Are you going to say that this amount doesn’t seem so high, and you’ve paid more for a toy doll?
Well, consider that in the 1890s ten dollars was extremely pricey; in fact it is comparable to at least $290 in today’s economy. Now we think that you’ll agree that the price was outrageous. Clearly, Edison was going to have to find a way to decrease manufacturing costs or lower the shelf cost some other way.
One More Try
Edison tried to get a loan for the manufacturer of the Talking Doll, going from bank to bank to convince them of the commercial value of the toy. However, he failed to procure a loan, and he knew that this was the last stop for the doll.
A curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Carlene Stephens, a specialist in technology, explained that the doll was indeed a brilliant idea. However, she said, it was never viable for the commercial market.
Let’s just remember that most of Mr. Edison’s work was highly successful and significant in terms of technology and quality of life around the world.