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Early talking doll recording discovered

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(July 17, 2011) — On May 11, 2011, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California recovered sound from an artifact that historians believe is the earliest surviving talking doll record. The artifact is a ring-shaped cylinder phonograph record made of solid metal, preserved by the National Park Service at Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Phonograph inventor Thomas Edison made the record during the fall or winter of 1888 in West Orange, New Jersey.

On the recording, an unidentified woman recites one verse of the nursery rhyme "Twinkle, twinkle, little star." The voice captured on the 123-year-old record had been unheard since Edison's lifetime. The recording represents a significant milestone in the early history of recorded sound technology.

Recovering and Identifying the Sound

The metal record is significantly bent out of its original round, cylindrical shape. For this reason, curators at Thomas Edison National Historical Park were unable to play the recording using conventional methods. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Senior Scientist Carl Haber and Computer Systems Engineer Earl Cornell used a three-dimensional optical scanning technology developed during 2007-2009, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, to create a digital model of the surface of the record. With this digital model, they used modern image analysis methods to reproduce the audio stored on the record, saving it as a WAV-format digital audio file. They were able to recover all but the first syllable of the first word of the recording. Once the recording could be heard, historian Patrick Feaster of Indiana University played a key role in identifying and dating the recording by finding relevant references among archival documents. Researcher René Rondeau of Corte Madera, California provided additional fact-checking assistance.

Talking Doll Records Made of Tin

In search of a market for his invention the phonograph, Edison first attempted to make talking dolls during 1888. The prototype model described in laboratory notes and newspaper articles between September and December of that year was distinctive for using a record made of solid tin. In November 1888, the New York Evening Sun announced that Edison's talking dolls had just been "perfected," and that "nothing remains but to manufacture them in large quantities." No commercially viable method of duplicating sound recordings had yet been developed, so Edison hired women with suitable voices to make as many records as he thought would be needed once his talking dolls were put on the market: "There were two young ladies in the room...who were continually talking to the tiny speaking machines, which a skilled workman was turning out in great numbers."

Significance of the Recording

According to Feaster, this New York Evening Sun report marks the first time anyone is known to have been employed specifically to perform for the phonograph, so these women were arguably the world's first professional recording artists. If the goal was to stockpile these tin records "in large quantities" to supply the eventual demand for talking dolls, as the New York Evening Sun suggests, then they may also have been the first phonograph recordings ever manufactured for sale to the public, even though they were never actually sold.

It was more than a year later, in April 1890, when Edison placed a talking doll on the market. By that time, however, he had switched the design to use records made of wax rather than tin. The dolls failed to sell because they broke too easily -- due in part to the fragility of the records. It is unclear why Edison switched from tin to wax records for the talking doll.

Provenance of the Artifact

National Park Service museum curators first cataloged the object in 1967, found among items left in the desk of Edison's secretary William H. Meadowcroft, located in the library of the Edison Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. A paper tag found tied to the cylinder reads: "Tin Phonograph Cylinder […]l Record." The artifact is the only example of a talking doll record from 1888 known to survive today.

Hear the recording.

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The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by staff) from materials provided by National Park Service.

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