For around $20, parents today can buy a "Bratz" doll that will lecture their children about fashion and social discretion, while wearing less than discreet outfits. It took years to develop a talking doll with that range of vocabulary, but it took even longer from the invention of the talking doll to the release of the first model people were willing to buy.
Dolls uttered their very first words sometime in 1888, in the laboratories of Thomas Edison, according to evidence recently discovered by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Edison had invented the cylindrical phonograph just over a decade earlier, at which point he immediately began brainstorming ways to churn out some profits.
As his first and last move in the doll industry, Edison tucked a cylindrical wax record into the chest cavity of a china doll. As the cylinder turned—with the service of a winding key that poked through the body—a needle scrolled across the bumpy recording, converting it into sound waves that then traveled out a small horn pointed into the mouth of the doll.
Edison’s talking doll went on the market in 1890 and got a definitive thumbs down. According to an account by historian Sherman Rogers, the voices on the recordings sounded warped and distorted—qualities that may enhance a chucky doll, but did little to win over the American public. Hollowed out dolls made their ways to scrap shops and Edison made no attempt to refine his invention.
The Jumeau doll company in France quickly snapped up Edison’s discarded ideas and came out with a similar model in 1893 called the Bebe Phonographe that also played recordings on wax cylinders. With a vocabulary of 35 words organized into songs and stories, the Bebe Phonographe found moderate success, but were too expensive for mass appeal.
Between 1910 and the 1940, china dolls went through an awkward growing spurt. As they were learning to talk, they were also taking their first steps and blinking their eyes. For every trick that the dolls learned, another bundle of mechanical doo-dads got stuffed into their guts or tacked onto the frames. One model even required an elaborate pulley system to walk. But a doll is not a cuckoo clock, and what most children seemed to want was a toy that could effortlessly interact without showing off how it did it.
In 1960, kids finally got exactly what they wanted: the Chatty Cathy or, as Rogers described it, "the most successful talking doll of the century." Although it could only recite 11 phrases—making it about twice as verbal as the Bebe Phonographe—Mattel's doll used a simple sound system that only minimally interfered with the anatomy. Instead of winding the doll, a child pulled a string coming out the back that activated a disc phonograph. With the turn of the century, the string would disappear entirely and analog recordings were replaced by digital tracks.
From there on out, it was only a matter of incremental advanced to arrive at Bratz dolls so advanced that parents worry more about what they say than how they say it.
This article is part of an ongoing series about inventions that arrived before the public was ready to accept them. You can read the rest of the series here.
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