The 1980’s was really the beginning of the microchip revolution, with costs for this technology rapidly dropping to an extent where it became possible for relatively cheap items such as toys to start taking advantage of the extra features the silicon chip brought with it. A good example of this was the change in the ways toys that could talk were made, with dolls and action figures appearing that had little buttons you could press to make them say phrases or make sound effects.
These advances meant that the 1980’s also saw the end to some of the more traditional enhancements to toys, and one of these was the pull string doll. You know the ones, when you yank a little cord out the back and the toy says one of a number of pre-recorded messages. Baby dolls could be made to say Mama or start crying, whilst more boy oriented toys such as superhero dolls would say that characters various catchphrases.
Now, quite how this worked I’m not exactly sure, but I believe the pull string wound up a rotating mechanism which was what caused the sound to be produced. I think this worked on the same principle as a record player, so the toy contained a little disc or drum with the sound etched into the surface, and a needle was then allowed to pass over this surface when the mechanism was activated. That’s my best guess anyway. If anyone knows for sure I’d love for you to post a little comment at the end explaining the system.
This idea hasn’t gone away entirely though, as it is still used a lot in babies toys to play nursery rhymes, since this is a lot safer than having batteries in something that might end up in babies mouth. In this case though the music is more likely to be played back via a traditional music box, which contains a drum with little bumps on it that cause little metal prongs to vibrate when the drum rotates underneath them. Each of the prongs plays a different note when tweaked, and so the arrangement of bumps on the drum will play a tune.
The good old pull string voicebox has however made a come back thanks to the brilliant computer animated movie Toy Story, since one of the main characters, the cowboy doll Woody, just so happened to be a pull string doll, and this was carried across to the range of toys that were made to accompany the film, which I for one think was a very good decision.