John M. Picker
March 5, 2015
The connection between mechanical voice reproduction and artificial femininity, popularized most recently by Apple’s debut of Siri for the iPhone in 2011, dates nearly to the very moment of the introduction of the phonograph in 1877. This connection was reinforced in the literature of the period, where it served to preserve or question traditional Victorian gender roles amid social and economic changes that were already upending them. In this essay, I build upon arguments in my book Victorian Soundscapes to sketch a trajectory of imaginative representation of the “female talking machine” across what historian of technology Vaclav Smil has identified as “the Age of Synergy” – that is, from Edison’s 1880s talking doll to E. E. Kellett’s turn of the century short story “The Lady Automaton” and on through George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion . After mapping out the figure of the female voice engine along this arc, from speaking automaton to autonomous vocalist, I conclude by suggesting how the demands of post-war capitalist mass entertainment sought to undermine if not reverse it.