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  • Writer's pictureKatie Aitken

Voice Over Origins : Toys

Rather excitingly, it seems that toys may very well be the first commercial use of voice over! The attribution of speech to products, specifically toys, appears to have been borne out of an interest in the development and creation of speech synthesis. Realism has always been a factor that inventors and engineers working with any sort of ‘talking machine’ have striven to create. However, whether or not they have been successful in that goal has been dependent on technology and public reaction. Some interesting parallels could certainly be drawn today with regard to TTS (text-to-speech)!

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel portrait
Johann Nepomuk Mälzel

First, a little history of ‘talking dolls’. From my research, it seems that the first established talking doll was developed by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. The doll, patented in 1824, could say 2 words, “Papa” and “Maman”. This was perhaps the first commercial use of speech synthesis.

The concept of attributing toys and puppets with speech continued, particularly in Sonnerberg, Germany, which was the toy manufacturing capital in the 19th century. Following Mälzel’s doll, further speaking puppets went into production from 1852, so much so that the role of Stimmenmacher (voice maker) became a specific profession.

However, fast forward a few decades and a more familiar name appears. Thomas Edison, an inventor credited with numerous creations and developments related to sound recording and motion picture, also appears to have been responsible for the first talking doll (which used a real voice!) In 1890, the doll was released but was poorly received and ceased production after only a few weeks.

Edison's talking doll with phonograph
Edison's talking doll with the original phonograph removed. The phonograph is 7" tall & the wax cylinder measures 3"

The dolls were 22 inches tall and contained a 7 inch phonograph (in fact, the first phonograph marketing for home entertainment) with a pre-recorded wax cylinder. However, there was quite a long list of issues with the doll that led to its failure. With it’s wooden limbs and metal body, it was quite heavy, weighing 4 pounds. It was also incredibly expensive, costing between $10-$25 which was the equivalent of approximately 2 weeks salary for your average Joe in those days. The next problem was that it wasn’t the most child friendly toy to operate. As there wasn’t a spring motor, it meant that the child had to hand turn the crank while maintaining a steady speed to make the doll recite the pre-recorded nursery rhyme. Finally, it was ultimately just not fit for purpose. It was too fragile for children’s rough handling and the steel stylus quickly wore out the wax cylinder.

According to Jerry Fabris, a curator of sound recordings at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, the recordings used for the doll was most likely read by various women working at Edison’s factory, imitating little girls. One of the voices is known to be a Miss Julia Miller, the daughter of one of Edison’s employees. You can hear in the video what the doll sounded like - but be warned, it is the stuff of nightmares! And that is not entirely a problem due to age. In fact, Edison is quoted as having said,

“the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear.”

Henri Lioret's talking toys, Bebe Jumeau and Le Merveilleux
Bébé Jumeau & Le Merveilleux

Although Edison’s dolls had their fair share of issues and were a pretty instant flop, it still caused quite a stir amongst technical circles around Europe. It didn’t take long for the idea to be developed and improved upon. In 1893, Henri Lioret, a clock maker, was asked to join forces with the prestigious Jumeau doll company to create a talking doll. Lioret’s upgrades from Edison’s talking doll included discarding the wax record and instead using durable celluloid. The cylinders which held the recordings were also interchangeable, containing different songs tailored for children in English, French, Spanish and Russian markets. This made Bébé Jumeau an altogether more successful product and led Lioret to continue working with the phonograph. He later created the “amusing and scientific toy”, a talking box using similar technology called ‘Le Merveilleux’, in 1895.

So there you have it - toys were possibly the earliest commercial use of voice over! Utilizing technology that we have seen repeatedly mentioned in voice over origin stories so far (namely, the phonograph) and similar key figures (namely, Edison). It is interesting to note that it was also toys that first initiated an interest in creating speech synthesis, the prelude to TTS - a topic many voice over artists are currently concerned about. Keep your eyes peeled for an article exploring the history of that, coming soon to Katie’s Column!

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