Thomas Edison’s phonograph company came out with a line of groundbreaking “talking” dolls in 1890. They lasted only six weeks before being yanked from stores, because the dolls sound like the risen Satan singing a lullaby. Now with the help of new technology, you too can listen to the dolls’ voices and never be at peace again.
Edison’s talking dolls must’ve seemed like a magical invention and a great idea at the time, on paper at least. When a crank was turned on the back of the doll, it operated a wee phonograph inside; bits of nursery rhymes recorded onto wax cylinders then “played” from the doll.
Sound historians say the cylinders were the first entertainment records ever made, and the young girls hired to recite the rhymes were the world’s first recording artists.
All well and good and quite cool for the history of recording technology. However, for the demographic the dolls were aimed at — and skittish bloggers 100+ years later — the screechy, disembodied tones emerge as a horror-show beyond words. I made it through one recording — a “doll” reciting “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep” — before I had to go outside and stand in the sunshine, away from the nightmare that was issuing forth from my speakers.
I love old technology, the uncannier the better. The Musée Mécanique in San Francisco, which features all kinds of antique automatons, is one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve spent hours making freestanding typewriters type out my fortune and feeding coins into dramatic mechanical dioramas. But I’ve long been uncomfortable around the idea of “sentient” dolls, incapable of watching horror movies that feature them. Leave Chucky out of this; I blame childhood Twilight Zone marathons and the episode “The Dummy.” Nope, nope, nope.
So the recordings may set me a bit more on edge than they do you — but if you listen, and imagine yourself as a small child alone in a gaslit room hand-cranking the noise out of a blank-faced stuffed companion, you can see why the dolls weren’t a hit in Edison’s day. The technology behind them, however, was hugely innovative — as is the tech used to recover their recordings.
The Rolfs, a couple who collected Edison phonographs, had kept a pair of the dolls for years, but were afraid to “play” them, for fear that the steel phonograph needle would damage the delicate wax after the space of a century (and also probably for fear of summoning Beelzebub). But they wanted to know what the recordings contained, and put out a call for assistance.
Enter a government lab that developed a new technology to play fragile records without having to set needle to groove. The tech, called Irene (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) is the brainchild of particle physicist Carl Haber and engineer Earl Cornell. Here’s how Irene works:
Cylinders carry sound in a spiral groove cut by a phonograph recording needle that vibrates up and down, creating a surface made of tiny hills and valleys. In the Irene set-up, a microscope perched above the shaft takes thousands of high-resolution images of small sections of the grooves.
Stitched together, the images provide a topographic map of the cylinder’s surface, charting changes in depth as small as one five-hundredth the thickness of a human hair. Pitch, volume and timbre are all encoded in the hills and valleys and the speed at which the record is played.
Irene can also help reconstruct audio from damaged recordings that were once thought to be unplayable, which is an incredible use of cutting-edge tech to help us better uncover and restore the past.
Now for the first time since the 1890s, Edison’s uncanny dolls can be heard, and the recordings digitized for mass distribution and maximum terror. The Edison Historical Park has posted the doll recordings for listening here, and you can read more about the dolls’ history here (and on past!Gizmodo):
Quartz put the recordings on Soundcloud, if you want to scar your unassuming friends for life with an out-of-context link.
If you’ll excuse me, I need to go back outside and then watch a video of a cat in shark costume riding a Roomba while it chases a duck. But I know I can never unhear this. I’m sleeping with the lights on tonight.