Issue 170, Summer 2004
The first shipment was lost in the Atlantic in mid-October. Six hundred china dolls went to the bottom not far out from Rotterdam, with nothing either divine or human to prevent that disastrous descent of lace, arms, legs, and glazed eyes forever gazing sightlessly at fish that could not eat them. They are still there, smiling and silent among the seaweed like an open grotto in the garden of a pederast, a wild dream landscape for marine photographers and toy collectors, who calculate the value of each doll at a little over thirteen hundred German marks.
That surprising figure makes it all the more difficult to grasp that Edison bought them for a little less than two dollars each, a price that even then would have seemed laughable.
In a letter dated just prior to the shipwreck, the inventor warmly congratulates Bernard Dick, his agent in Europe, on the success of his dealings with the manufacturers in Nuremberg, and goes on to suggest that, if the dolls turn out to be right and suitable for his ambitious scheme, the profits from the first sales would allow them quite soon to open a new factory in New Jersey, which would save having to import the dolls from Europe.
The telegram that Thomas Edison sends to his agent following the first news of the disaster is much less effusive. The extent ofthe loss now seems horrendous to him, almost criminal if you add on the cost of the many vicissitudes that have arisen since he set out to create a speaking toy. Not just the seven long months since Dick set out on his onerous search for the perfect doll-figure for Edison's phonograph, but the threat that his competitors, the southern firm of Toys and Gadgets, would soon launch an ingenious artifact that, in the words of its inventor, would make Edison's dolls mere talking fossils.
There is no record ofthe letter or telegram carrying Bernard Dick's reply to his employer's reproof, but most likely he preferred to turn his back on it and return to his native Chicago, where he is known to have died three years later, suffering from dropsy and besieged by a legion of creditors, the ferocious lawyers from the office in Menlo Park ever present among them.
Charles Nervez, Bernard Dick's successor in the production ofthe speaking dolls, knew how to make up for his inexperience with a kind of visionary zest and a personal charm that pleased Edison for almost twenty years. Well aware that the ill-fated Dick had unquestionably made the right choices in Germany, Nervez managed to convince his employer to order another thousand dolls, and arrange for them to be transported on three separate cargo ships, properly insured. He himself returned from Europe with the last shipment through a sea storm that threatened the dolls with the same fate as those of Bernard Dick. The boat, however, docked intact in New York on a cloudy afternoon on October 6, 1885. Edison himself, who had traveled from West Orange to meet the boat, was waiting on the pier, his face creased in a smile that still betrayed his anxieties over another shipwreck. Pale and exhausted, barely able to realize he was back on land, Nervez managed to delegate the disembarking of the dolls to an assistant before letting himself be led away by his employer, in a mixed state of satisfaction at having accomplished his mission and a certain inexplicable sadness. Interviewed decades later by the editor ofthe Times, Charles Nervez remembered with some horror the insane drive to Thomas Edison's factory in New Jersey—torture, O Lord, two endless hours during which he had to listen to the inventor, unusually loquacious, explaining to him every stage ofthe manufacturing process, every technical ingenuity, all the abuse that was bound to come from those imbeciles at Toys and Gadgets when they learned we had exorcised all the bad omens surrounding the talking dolls. Nervez also described, like someone unwillingly recounting a bad dream, his arrival at the walled enclosure in West Orange—a vast factory of red tile, huge prison-like doors, secret as night, that enormous workshop where geared machinery and tiny phonographs were waiting like hungry larvae for the arrival of their German fiancees. For a fleeting second, the young man felt as if he had been swallowed by a huge marine creature, a sleeping monster whose insides suddenly resounded with the notes of a well-known nursery song. Undone by the hallucinatory sound, Nervez went looking for the source of that improbable music. He picked his way among concrete slabs and pillars, tripped over a box filled with dismembered dolls, and swore a solemn oath never again to travel by boat. Finally, he came on a door which, once opened, revealed a long row of wooden stalls where some twenty women were singing, without stopping, the first verse of Jack and Jill into gilded cylindrical mouths that put him in mind of snakes, poised, waiting and insatiable.