Failed Sorcery at Menlo Park

Sam Van Olffen, Eve Future.  Many of Van Olffen’s images have become synonymous with steampunk and dieselpunk.  See more of his work at Blogspot.

The description that the fictionalized Thomas Edison gives, in Villers’ L’Eve Future, of the inner workings of the android Hadaly is entirely fabricated. It is a brilliantly imaginative bricolage of extrapolations based on Edison’s productions up to the early-to-mid 1880s (the novel was initially published in 1886).  The centerpiece of Hadaly’s design is a twin set of golden phonograph records that house the sum of her physiological and conversational behaviour.  In the novel, Edison is of course rather vague on the finer points of how this set up works in practice, at times suggesting that Hadaly would be able to respond appropriately to particular gestures and queries put to her, while at others he appears more modest in his claims, implying that her activities would run on a set schedule to which one would more or less become accustomed.

I recently learned that the real Edison did, around the holiday season of 1890, market a talking doll that housed a miniature phonograph, which one played using a tiny hand crank.

The phonograph played little wax cylinders, each individually recorded since any type of serial moulding had yet to be developed. Apparently, the dolls were a major disaster, leading Edison to dub them his “little monsters.” The cylinders were fragile and wore out easily, they were made with poor recording technology, and required a certain degree of dexterity to regulate playback speed, all of which created a scenario the result of which was the horrifying screech of a corrupt Pentecost. If you dare, you can listen to it gibber “Little Jack Horner” here. In addition to these technical and aesthetic problems, the dolls cost an enormous sum of money: $10 for a doll with a simple chemise, $20-$25 for one with more sumptuous attire, representing something like a month’s salary for most families. Tickle-Me Elmo this was not.

For a more detailed story about the dolls, along with more images, check out “Christmas Toys Gone Wrong” over at GE Reports.

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