5/10/13

Edison's Eve by Gaby Wood

[Thomas] Edison's doll, now barely a footnote in biographies of the inventor, was in 1890 no small affair. In fact, Edison devoted so much time, space, and manpower to this doomed project that one might interpret its disappearance from the story of his life as the cover-up of some shameful secret—was it a project akin to Vaucanson's abandoned blood machine? It is as if Edison's large-scale attempt at creation was bound to fail, and had to be buried. . . . The dolls' bodies, which were made  up of six different pieces of tin, were stamped out and soldered together by steel dies and iron presses, some of which weighed five tons. The miniature phonographs were made in a separate assembly room, and adjustments to them were made in another. In one room, eighteen young girls, each with her own cubicle, sat speaking into the machines, recording the words the dolls were to say. [Editor of Scientific American Albert] Hopkins was quite overwhelmed: "The jangle produced by a number of girls simultaneously repeating 'Mary had a little lamb,' 'Jack and Jill,' 'Little Bo-Peep,' and other interesting stories, is beyond description," he wrote. "These sounds united with the sounds of the phonographs themselves when reproducing the stories make a veritable pandemonium." When the girls had finished, the phonographs were taken into another room, where they were put into the bodies of the dolls, and from there the dolls passed into the packing room, where they were put into boxes labeled with "the story the doll is able to repeat."