Despite being one of the most successful inventors in history, Thomas Edison was certainly no stranger to failure. As detailed in this article, he bungled one opportunity by failing to determine whether one of his inventions was even wanted by the target audience. He refused to see failures as “failures,” however, and simply reclassified them as “10,000 ways that wouldn’t work.”
Among those “ways that wouldn’t work” was one that merits remembering, not merely because of the way it shows the creative innovation of one of history’s greatest geniuses but also because of the sheer creepiness of the invention itself. We speak, of course, of Edison’s “little monsters,” otherwise known as the Phonograph Doll.
In July 1891, the U.S. Patent Office issued patent number 456,301 to Edison for a phonograph doll. The patent (click here to see), purported to combine Edison’s famous phonograph with a standard child’s toy. In theory, this would produce an adorable, state-of-the-art plaything to stimulate the imaginations of the next generation. In reality, the dolls turned out to be unreliable, cumbersome, creepy fuel for nightmares.
The dolls started emerging from Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey facility in April 1890. Each stood 22 inches tall, weighed four pounds, and consisted of wooden arms and legs, a tin torso, and a porcelain head. Inside each torso was a miniaturized version of the phonograph, complete with a tiny wax cylinder with a 20-second recording of one of a dozen children’s rhymes. The rhymes included “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Jack and Jill,” and “Hickory Dickory Dock.” The phonograph was powered by a small hand crank on the doll’s back.
The phonograph doll was the first attempt to reproduce sound for commercial and entertainment purposes. It also marked the beginning of the recording artist industry. As many as 18 women were hired to sit in front of recording machines, reciting nursery rhymes. Each wax cylinder had to be recorded separately, so these women had plenty of opportunities to perfect their trade.
Despite the promising premise of the product, it was a dismal failure. Edison referred to the dolls as his “little monsters.”
Several problems plagued the phonograph dolls. The doll’s price ranged from $10 for an undressed doll to $20 for a dressed one. This, in 2021 prices, would be $279 and $578, respectively. This was, quite frankly, too expensive for anyone but the very wealthy. Aside from the prohibitive price, however, there were technological problems. For one thing, the recording cylinders were unstable and easily broken. Another complaint was that the hand crank was easily misplaced. Several dolls were returned because they stopped working.
Within days of the dolls’ release to the public, a representative of Horace Patridge & Co., a toy seller from Boston, wrote to Edison, saying, “We are having quite a number of your dolls returned to us and should think something was wrong, We have had five or six recently sent back some on account of the works being loose inside, and others won’t talk and one party from Salem sent one back stating that after using it for an hour it kept growing fainter until finally it could not be understood.”
Beyond the technological deficiencies, many reported being repulsed by the dolls, saying that they were “creepy” and “terrifying.” Such observations seem well warranted when listening to the screeching sounds coming from the awkward construction in the adjacent video.
One newspaper criticized the toys for their “flat, uninflected whine.” A Washington Post headline declared, “Dolls That Talk: They Would Be More Entertaining if You Could Understand What They Say.”
One month after releasing the dolls for sale, Edison withdrew them from the market. His records indicate that 7,500 dolls were assembled and awaiting shipment from his warehouse. An estimated 500 were actually sold.
Edison went to work trying to overcome the toy’s problems. They were just too great, however. By the fall of 1890, the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company was more than $50,000 in debt. Unable to secure financing to continue improvement efforts, Edison scrapped the project and set his sights on other opportunities.