Edison’s Talking Dolls: A Lesson In Damage Control

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland had returned from their race around the world by just a few months when Edison’s long-awaited Talking Dolls first became available at the Lenox Lyceum in New York on April 7, 1890. The original shipment was received to great fanfare by an awed public. Even so, Edison’s talking dolls were a lesson in damage control.

Edison’s Talking Dolls were a very big deal in their day. With a human voice reciting a nursery rhyme pre-recorded on a cylinder, the doll represented an historic step for the phonograph, invented by Edison in 1877.

Edison, by some accounts, wanted his recording machine to be used strictly for serious applications like taking dictation in the office. His investors and distributors, on the other hand, wanted to explore a broader spectrum of uses for home entertainment.

A New Company Is Formed

In 1887, the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company was formed with business partners, William W. Jacques and Lowell Briggs. Edison agreed to lend his name to the Talking Dolls in return for company stock and royalties.

Jacques and Lowell’s original design, which had been in development for several years, utilized Edison’s original tinfoil phonograph. For some reason, Edison switched the plans from tin recordings to wax recordings. (He also switched himself into the head position of the company instead of Jacques, a move that led to lawsuits and years of bad blood.)

The Buzz Begins And Orders Are Placed

The New York Evening Sun announced in November, 1888 that Edison’s Talking Doll was perfected and awaiting mass productions. Dozens of orders were placed in excited anticipation.

With no technology for duplicating recorded voices, each doll’s voice had to be recorded separately. Edison and his team had to develop a commercially viable way of recording each voice reading a nursery rhyme like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, one per doll.

By some accounts, Edison’s toy factory was filled with young girls recording their voices at benches. By other accounts, only two young ladies were responsible for all the recordings.

Either way, these original recording artists continually read nursery rhymes into the tiny “speaking machines” that skilled workmen turned out in large numbers, 2,500 to be exact.

The dolls were tested in the pristine conditions of the factory, and the long awaited Talking Dolls were finally delivered to stores across the nation. Some found their way to Canada.

Why Such A Dismal Failure?

After all that development, hope, grief and financial investment, the Talking Dolls were marketed for only a few short weeks. Less than 500 were sold, and the vast majority of those were returned due to customer dissatisfaction.

Why the big flop? Perhaps it was the sheer heft of the dolls? They were 22 inches tall and weighed a whopping four pounds. That’s a lot of doll for a child to tote around.

Or was it the fact that you had to crank a handle each time for the doll to recite the one nursery rhyme in its voice box?

Worst of all, the ring-shaped wax records wore out quickly (yes, they were originally tin and Edison changed the design to wax), so they were prone to warping and cracking.

And did we mention that the creepiness factor of the voice quality was enough to cause a lifetime of nightmares? The Talking Doll retailed at $10 for a version in a simple shift and went to $25 for one wearing a more elaborate outfit. That’s a lot of money (approximately two weeks pay in 1890) for a big nightmare.

Masterful Damage Control Leaves Us Speechless

Apparently, Mr. Edison was not one to wait for more bad news. (All CEOs and Product Managers in today’s world should take notes.) In May of 1890, only a month after the dolls were distributed, Edison stopped production recalled all dolls from stores and refunds were issued.

The dolls that had been returned, along with the large remaining stock of unsold dolls still waiting at the Edison factory, were stripped of their phonographs, then the voiceless dolls weree sold off cheaply.

All of these Edison dolls are very scarce today and those with their original phonograph are extremely rare. The majority of these collectible dolls that survived are either speechless, or have a replica phonograph mechanism.

You can see one of Edison’s Talking Dolls in Action in this entertaining clip from Oddities on the Science Channel.

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