In the year 1890, inventing a talking doll seemed like a brilliant idea to Thomas Edison. He had already captured sound on tin-foil-coated records with his phonograph invention in 1877, but tin-foil was too fragile.
Wax records proved to work better than tin, making phonograph technology marketable. But how could Edison sell phonographs?
That’s where the idea of talking toys came in. The Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company installed a small wax cylinder phonograph inside a 22-inch doll that featured a porcelain head, metal body, and wooden arms and legs. Each tiny phonograph included a 20-second-long recording.
There were 2 major problems: the doll was quite heavy, weighing 5 pounds; and it was expensive – priced at $10 (equivalent to $200 today). Nevertheless, newspapers breathlessly promoted the innovative talking dolls.
It was on this date in 1890 that the Jamestown Weekly Alert published exciting news. Edison’s talking dolls, and other inventions, were being exhibited at the fabulous Minneapolis Exposition.
Newspapers reported that several North Dakotans were traveling by rail to see the inventions. Folks from Grand Forks, Washburn, Wahpeton and Jamestown were among those documented in news accounts of the time.
Large crowds flocked to see the five talking dolls. One doll whistled “Yankee Doodle;” another sang “Sweet Violets;” one vocalized comic strip character Little Annie Rooney; another recited “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep;” and one even rhymed “Old Mother Hubbard Went to Her Cupboard.”
Some who heard Edison’s talking dolls called them a “perfect reproduction of the human voice,” or said the recordings turned out “surprisingly well.” However, others were critical, commenting that the dolls “would be more entertaining if you could understand what they say.”
Edison’s talking dolls proved unsuccessful. He produced 10,000, but sold only 500. They were too expensive, too heavy, and had unpleasant voices. To modern ears, the recorded voices sound screechy and a little scary. Also, as the wax records wore out, the dolls lost their voices entirely. Edison acknowledged that his talking doll venture had failed, referring to the toys as his “little monsters.”
Although the talking dolls did not sell, the phonograph itself became a roaring success. Edison’s sound-capturing technology triumphed. In fact, a North Dakotan named Chadburne W. Salie first brought a phonograph to Grand Forks, in July, 1890 – the very same year that Edison’s talking dolls flopped. It was the phonograph itself, not the doll, that turned out to be an invention just as brilliant as Edison’s lightbulb.
Hear sound recordings from Edison's dolls here, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.
“The Minneapolis Exposition,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, September 4, 1890, p 6.
“At the Exposition,” St. Paul Globe, September 17, 1890, p. 3.
“Exposition Notes,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 19, 1890, p. 5.
“Personal,” Grand Forks Herald, September 23, 1890, p. 4.
“Jamestown People,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, September 18, 1890, p 8.
“Local Brickbats,” Washburn Leader, September 20, 1890, p. 1.
“C. Olson,” Wahpeton Times, September 11, 1890, p. 1.
“Chadburn W. Salie,” Grand Rapids township, La Moure County, ND, U.S. Census, 1910, ancestry.com, accessed on August 2, 2019.
“Exposition Attractions,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 16, 1890, p. 5.
“Toys for Christmas,” Bismarck Tribune, November 13, 1890, p. 4.
Victoria Dawson, The Epic Failure of Thomas Edison’s Talking Doll, June 1, 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/epic-failure-thomas-edisons-talking-doll-180955442/#xdlzOhbowXlJt3oR.99, accessed August 1, 2019.
Neda Ulaby, “Edison's Talking Dolls Can Now Provide The Soundtrack To Your Nightmares,” May 5, 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/05/05/404445211/edisons-talking-dolls-can-now-provide-the-soundtrack-to-your-nightmares, accessed August 1, 2019.
Ron Cowen, Ghostly Voices from Edison’s Dolls,” New York Times, May 5, 2015, p. D2.
“We Have a Phonograph in Town,” Grand Forks Herald, July 26, 1890, p. 5.
“History of the Cylinder Phonograph,” Library of Congress.com, https://www.loc.gov/collections/edison-company-motion-pictures-and-sound-recordings/articles-and-essays/history-of-edison-sound-recordings/history-of-the-cylinder-phonograph/, accessed August 1, 2019.