Thomas Edison's Creepy Dolls Can Finally Talk Again

New technology re-creates voices from wax cylinders
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted May 10, 2015 7:59 AM CDT

We can thank Thomas Edison for plenty of things, but the world had little use for one of his inventions. Edison's talking dolls were among the first of their kind, NPR reports. But even in the 1890s, they scared kids—and were expensive—and only about 500 of them were built and sold. (Edison reportedly later referred to the failed dolls as "little monsters.") Some still exist, but they've been silent for years. Robin and Joan Rolfs, owners of two dolls, feared that operating the cranks on their backs could break them, the New York Times reports. Their voices came from recordings on wax cylinders, but if a doll's phonograph needle hit the cylinder again today, it could ruin it. The good news, at least for fans of extremely creepy 19th-century recordings, is that we can finally hear them again.

That's thanks to the work of a physicist and an engineer, who developed a technology that uses a microscope to study the grooves on the cylinders before they are re-created as computer images and, ultimately, extremely accurate sounds. The cylinders don't have to be touched at all, the Times notes. "We are now hearing sounds from history that I did not expect to hear in my lifetime," the curator of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park tells the paper. The recordings feature what are supposed to be the voices of little girls reading nursery rhymes. But the curator tells NPR that they more likely contain recordings of factory workers mimicking little kids. "Edison himself thought they were unpleasant," he notes. PBS NewsHour calls them "nightmare fuel." (But is it enough to knock Edison off the list of the 10 most popular Americans?)

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