Tuesday, May 24th, 2011
I was reading this article and watching the associated video about the robots in the National Museum of American History which is an interesting look into the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of mechanisms, from a 16th century spring-wound automaton of a monk to C3PO to cutting edge miniaturized robots. It includes a picture of a crawling children’s doll patented in 1871. It’s strikingly scary looking but the story provides no information beyond the bare bones caption (“Model for a creep baby doll, which was patented in 1871″), and it’s not even in the video, so of course I had to search high and low to find out more about this AI Chucky.
First of all, creeping is what they called crawling back then, and as recently as the early 19th century the question of whether babies should be allowed to crawl was still hotly debated. Crawling was what crazy people and animals did and as such was morally suspect, even “unnatural” for a sane human. By the mid-1800s, however, crawling was seen as a natural stage of childhood and the popularity of devices such as the standing stool began to wane.
Meanwhile, as industrial mass production took over from individual toy makers and technology itself became a source of convenience and fascination, dolls with clockwork elements became increasingly popular toys. Instead of the rag doll with a change of clothes, wood, ceramic, and metal automata put on a show of blinking eyes, moving limbs and mouths, or two faces that would turn with a flip of a switch. Dollmaking was becoming the province of inventors and machinists, not just designers. After the Civil War, American dollmakers tried to get a piece of the action by upping the mechanization ante. The baby doll with a wax head and a crawling motion powered by an internal clockwork mechanism was an attempt to tap into this trend.
Now a correction: although it’s certainly a creep, it’s actually called a “Creeping Baby Doll” and was first patented by Robert J. Clay on March 14, 1871. (Did you know you could purchase prints of old patents from the US National Archives? Neat gift idea for a wide range of nerds.) In the application, he describes his creepy baby as “a very amusing toy…produced at small cost.”
The prototype in the Smithsonian, however, is a slightly later iteration. Clay’s patent was number 112,550. The creep baby on display at the National Museum of American History is the patent model for patent number 118,435, submitted by George P. Clarke and accepted on August 29, 1871. Clarke was Clay’s boss and his patent was an improvement on Clay’s original model.
Despite Clay’s belief that his toy would be very amusing, it had limited appeal for its target audience of little girls. It looks scary, weighs a lot and isn’t particularly interactive. It’s more of an exhibition piece than a cuddly toy, and once the mechanism broke (which happened often with the earlier models), its heaviness and hardness made it a dead weight rather than a doll that could be integrated into regular play.
Even Thomas Alva Edison’s foray into mechanized dollmaking was a playtime failure, although interesting as a display piece. He invented the first talking doll in 1877 (sold to the public starting in 1890). It was a tall, 22″ doll with a metal body and a bisque head with a wee phonograph inside that was operated by a key in the back. When the key was turned, the phonograph would play a wax cylinder. This was the first phonograph sold for home use, so it’s an important stepping stone in the history of entertainment technology. The only problem was the child had to turn the key steadily at the proper speed the whole time to hear the doll speak, and since you couldn’t switch out the cylinder, once the needle wore it down, that was the end of Chatty Cathy. Oh, also, Edison himself described the sound produced in less than flattering terms. He said “the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear” and he wasn’t lying, let me tell you.
Click, if you dare, on play to hear the Little Jack Horner cylinder: