One of Thomas Edison's earliest ideas for his phonograph involved recording the audio for talking dolls on a ring-shaped cylinder. You know, for kids. Now researchers have digitally resurrected the sound of the earliest known example of such a recording from 123 years ago.
This earliest surviving talking doll recording features a woman reciting a verse of the nursery rhyme "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." She was one of two women hired by Edison for what may have been the first professional recording artist gig. The solid metal record and its counterparts may represent the first phonograph recordings ever made for intended sale to the public — even if they were never actually sold.
The tin phonograph cylinder made in 1888 represents Edison's first attempt to make talking dolls, as described in laboratory notes and newspaper articles from late in the year.
But for unknown reasons, Edison had switched from tin to wax recordings by the time the first talking dolls first hit store shelves in April 1890. Doll sales flopped in part because the wax recordings proved too fragile. Fortunately for Edison, he saw other successes with the phonograph and similarly bright ideas such as the incandescent light bulb.
They then extracted a digital audio file by using modern image analysis, and captured all but the very first syllable of the very first word.
Historian Patrick Feaster of Indiana University and researcher Rene Rondeau of Corte Madera, Calif., helped identify the recording's significance.
National Park Service museum curators had first cataloged the object in 1967 from among items found in the desk of Edison's secretary, William H. Meadowcroft. A paper tag attached to the cylinder simply reads: "Tin Phonograph Cylinder […]l Record."