Talking Doll FAQ - Concept, Design, and Technical Development

Who invented the Talking Doll Phonograph?

While developing his original Tinfoil Phonograph, Thomas Edison wrote, "I propose to apply the phonograph principle to make Dolls speak sing cry & make various sounds." (November 23, 1877)

Edison thus documented his concept of a talking doll about two weeks before he recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb," to be repeated by the Tinfoil Phonograph.

Who further developed the Talking Doll Phonograph?

In 1878, Edison licensed Oliver D. Russell to develop and manufacture phonograph toys, but little work was done on talking dolls until nine years later.

William White Jacques (an "electrical expert" based in Boston) built an unfinished but very cheap "apparatus" intended for use in talking toys. Jacques showed the apparatus to Edward H. Johnson, a business associate of Thomas Edison, on June 22, 1887. Johnson informed Edison about Jacques, spurring Edison to take a renewed interest in phonographic toys.

Jacques could not legally make and sell toys employing Edison's patented phonograph principle without first obtaining a license from Edison. Edison sought monetary compensation for permitting others to apply the principle of his phonograph to specific applications, such as clocks, dolls, and toys. He was happy to license Jacques for "Dolls and Toy Figures," in exchange for royalty payments. For more detail on this, see "What was the relationship between Thomas Edison, W. W. Jacques, and the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company (EPTMCo)?"

Edison assigned his chief experimental assistant, Charles Batchelor, to work on a "toy phonograph" as early as December 26, 1887.

Batchelor seems to have conducted most of the work done at the Edison Laboratory, toward technical development and manufacture of the Edison Talking Doll. His activities are outlined under the next two questions.

When were prototype mechanisms made?

Charles Batchelor began experimenting with a mica diaphragm for toy phonograph use on February 23, 1888.
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Batchelor made "a small phonograph for dolls," with an automatic-return motion, on March 6, 1888.
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Batchelor tried diaphragms made of mica, celluloid, and hard rubber, in a series of "toy phonograph experiments" on March 30-31, 1888.
MBJ004;TAEM 90:457 - Image 24 and Image 25

Working between April 1 and April 14, 1888, Batchelor developed a toy phonograph equipped with a brass-drum feed screw driving the traveling reproducer. The return-motion was activated "by pressing a button in front of the doll." The tin record (cast on a stepped-down section of the brass drum) played for four turns, at a surface speed of 960 inches per minute. "Very good & practical."
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Batchelor was working on a toy phonograph powered by a spring motor, when he sketched a device for lifting the needle from the record during winding, on September 7, 1888.
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What types of doll records were developed, and when?

Experimental Records

For his early doll-record experiments, on March 30 and March 31, 1888, Charles Batchelor wrapped copper foil around a grooved cylinder (2.25-inches in diameter, threaded at 24 TPI).
MBJ004;TAEM 90:457 - Image 24 and Image 25

During the week ending April 6, 1888, Batchelor got loud and clear recordings on a cylinder made of a mixture of asphalt and carnauba wax.
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On April 14, 1888, Batchelor made small cylinders of three different metals: lead, pure tin, and solder (50% lead, 50% tin). "All worked, but tin is the best, giving very little scratch."
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During May 1888, Batchelor studied the properties of various metal alloys, made with differing proportions of lead, antimony, and tin. He compared the hardness of the alloys, how well they take a polish, and how easily they can be cut with a knife.
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On February 21, 1889, W. W. Jacques informed Edison: "By the way, we find an alloy very similar to Babbit [sic] metal, very much superior in the quality of tone to the tin rings we have formerly used." (Babbitt metal is an alloy of tin, copper, and antimony, used for bearings.)

Pre-Production Sample Records

During 1888 and 1889, small quantities of metal cylinder records were produced, for use in demonstrating prototype talking dolls. Surviving examples that have been examined are vertically-cut records, with a square ("chisel cut") groove profile.

Two sizes of metal records are known. Tin records having an outside diameter close to 2-1/2 inches (such as EDIS 1279) were described in a New York Evening Sun article dated November 22, 1888.

Charles Batchelor sought to maximize the surface speed of the doll records, for louder playback, while still keeping the toy phonograph small enough to fit in the doll's body. This objective probably explains the creation of larger metal records, which have a 3-inch outside diameter (such as EDIS 1565). The 3-inch size was likely adopted as a system improvement, in early 1889.

Metal cylinders of both sizes are narrow rings—just 0.4 to 0.5 inch wide. They were typically recorded at a groove pitch of 50 turns per inch (50 TPI).

Sample dolls were being fitted with wax records by June 1889, when Albert Blake Dick toured Europe at Edison's request, showing the samples and collecting data on the doll trade in France, Germany, Austria, and Belgium. (The A. B. Dick Co. manufactured The Edison Mimeograph. Edison contemplated having Mr. Dick manage the assembly and sale of talking dolls in Europe.)

Commercial Records

Edison Talking Dolls sold in the spring of 1890 were equipped with brown-wax records, 3 inches in outside diameter. Surviving wax rings are 0.55 inch wide and carry a vertical-cut, square-profile groove, pitched at 65 TPI.

When were "sample" and "model" mechanisms and Talking Dolls delivered?

The Edison Phonograph Works apparently showed their first sample "toy phonograph for dolls" to the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company (EPTMCo) on November 14, 1888.

On August 8, 1889, Charles Batchelor described a sample talking doll, shipped to EPTMCo: "We have sent you by express a complete doll with phonograph inside of it."

Batchelor noted 19 "Dolls Shipped" during the week ending December 21, 1889.
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Edison's Private Secretary, Alfred Ord Tate, advised the Edison Phonograph Works on February 4, 1890: "The MODEL DOLLS taken by [Edgar S. Allien (General Manager of EPTMCo)] to Boston on Wednesday last [January 29, 1890] have been approved and accepted by the Board of Directors of the Toy Co."

Who decided that the performance of the Talking Doll Phonograph was acceptable, and therefore approved the mass-production of Edison Talking Dolls?
The Board of Directors of the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company (EPTMCo).

Last updated: April 25, 2015

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