Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life
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Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life

by Gaby Wood

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During the eighteenth century, the inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck that seemingly could digest and excrete its food. A few decades later, Europeans fell in love with “the Turk,” a celebrated chess-playing machine built in 1769. Thomas Edison was obsessed for years with making a talking mechanical doll, one of his few failures as


During the eighteenth century, the inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck that seemingly could digest and excrete its food. A few decades later, Europeans fell in love with “the Turk,” a celebrated chess-playing machine built in 1769. Thomas Edison was obsessed for years with making a talking mechanical doll, one of his few failures as an inventor. In our own time, scientists at MIT are trying to build a robot with emotions of its own.

What lies behind our age-old pursuit to create mechanical life? What does this pursuit tell us about human nature? In Edison’s Eve Gaby Wood traces the history of robotics, from its most brilliant inventions to its most ingenious hoaxes. Joining lively anecdote with literary, cultural, and philosophical insights, Wood offers a captivating and learned work of science and history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A lively, elegant, and surprising book, packed with curious details and enticing anecdotes.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Densely anecdotal and engaging, and almost frighteningly well-researched . . . A lovely and often brilliant book.” —The New York Observer

“A treasure trove of marvels and information. Wittily and cogently written, this unusual cultural analysis provides us with unsettling insights.” —Joyce Carol Oates

“Masterly, elegant and thoughtful cultural history . . .engaging and deceptively simple.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Wonderful . . . a rigorously researched and grippingly narrated weaving of tales.” —The Financial Times (London)

Library Journal
In this National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction finalist, Wood reaches and researches deeply into the history and philosophy of science to bring together the stories of obsessed inventors of times past and their attempts to duplicate life to various degrees.
The New Yorker
Embodying the confusions between what is "lifelike" and what is alive, robots have always held an anxious fascination. When eighteenth-century physicians described the body as a complex piece of machinery, the stage was set for inventors like Jacques de Vaucanson, who thrilled Paris with a flute-playing android, and Wolfgang von Kempelen, whose chess-playing automaton took on the best players of its time. Deftly balancing historical detail with provocative meditations on the reception accorded such marvels, Wood then traces the development of subsequent imitations of life, such as the talking doll designed by Thomas Edison and the magic-filled films of Georges Méliès. Her contention that in the twentieth century human freaks came to seem more uncanny than machines may not entirely persuade, but the exotic particulars -- especially those pertaining to a group of circus midgets called the Doll Family -- more than make up for this inconsistency.
The New York Times
Tracing the human fascination with robotics to the sophisticated mechanical toys of the Enlightenment, the author conjures a menagerie of bizarre and quixotic automatons, including chess-playing machines, artificial defecating ducks and Thomas Edison's doomed venture to mass-produce talking dolls.
Our fear of human cloning and uppity, thinking computers may seem unique to our age, but this book shows that people have been trying to create artificial life, or play God, for a long time. Archytas of Tarentum, a contemporary of Plato, is said to have built a flying wooden pigeon, and Hero of Alexandria created a simulated human that, thanks to a special neck mechanism, defied all attempts at decapitation. Things really got busy in the Age of Reason, when sci-ence began to suggest that men were machines (with souls). In the 1730s, Jacques de Vaucanson built an elaborate flute-playing automaton that actually "breathed" air and delighted Parisian audiences with 12 different melodies. (Diderot saw the show and coined the term "androA de.") He soon topped himself with a mechanical duck that "ate food out of the exhibitor's hand, swallowed it, digested it and excreted it" before the likes of Louis XV and Voltaire. The Hungarian Wolfgang von Kempelen subsequently created a mechanical chess player that toured internationally over many decades, taking on Napoleon (who lost), Catherine the Great (who was disqualified for cheating) and Benjamin Franklin (out-come undocumented). This baffling wooden "Turk" rolled his eyes and moved game pieces with an ingeniously engi-neered arm. It (he) made ladies faint, whipped up widespread philosophical debate about the nature of intelligence and stirred Edgar Allan Poe into writing an exposA in which he asserted, rightly, that a human being had to be inside. Need-less to say, the area between science and spectacle, experiment and amusement, metaphysics and fun has historically been rather gray. There's even evidence that Thomas Edison developed thephonograph as a component for a talking doll he wanted to mass-produce. He did in fact create a metal doll with a tiny phonograph inside, the Eve of this book's title, but it was a huge commercial flop. (Recording technology, on the other hand, has done pretty well.) Simulations of life have always been creepy, if not downright frightening, even when meant to entertain. One day in 1895, in Paris, the first paying audience sat down to experience the Cinematograph. When the moving image of a train came rushing to-ward them, they ran right out of the theater. In the end, the author says, each of these inventions has been "a riddle, a fundamental challenge to our perception of what makes us human." And there are more of them on the way.
—John Glassie
Publishers Weekly
In five entertaining chapters, British journalist Wood describes the ways humans have built machines to resemble themselves over the past three centuries. Wood begins with the dynamic creations of the 18th-century Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, explaining how his elaborate automatons, most notably a mechanical flute player and a mechanical duck apparently capable of eating and defecating, fascinated onlookers throughout Europe. She then moves to Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess-playing machine, constructed to look like a Turkish gentleman and capable of beating virtually any chess player in the 18th century, and Thomas Alva Edison's unsuccessful attempt to capture the American toy market by incorporating a version of his phonograph into the first talking doll. In her fourth chapter, Wood switches her attention from machines that look like humans to humans who look like machines. To wit, the Doll family: four midgets who toured with Ringling Brothers' Circus and appeared in The Wizard of Oz, in addition to other lesser known Hollywood productions. Some audiences refused to believe the Dolls were alive, assuming instead that they were sophisticated toys. Wood's anecdotes are delightful, though the book as a whole feels somewhat repetitive and short on analysis. She frequently reminds readers that these historical vignettes show the continuous struggle to determine what makes us human, but that's about as far as her commentary goes. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
It quacked like a duck, it flapped like a duck, it even pooped like a duck. So, how was this metal clockwork creature different from a real duck? The question perplexed its 18th-century audiences, and the quest to create imitations of life continues to bemuse and unnerve us. Gaby Wood, a staff writer for the London Observer, leads us through a splendid tour of modern robots, mechanical automata, Edison's talking dolls, Barnum & Bailey's living Doll Family, and the illusionary automata of Kempelen's Chess-Playing Turk, early photographers, movies, and magicians. Her research has turned up a remarkable range of historical and fictional examples of technology simulating life and vice versa. (I only regret the omission of Robertson Davies's use of the Talking Head tradition in The Deptford Trilogy). They are all fascinating in themselves, and her perceptive analysis connects them in wonderful ways. But it is the unfailing grace of Wood's writing and her willingness to put herself into the story that makes this a truly memorable book. Put this into the hands of high-school students as a model of first-rate prose and cultural history. If I were teaching English, history, film, sociology, psychology, philosophy, science, or computers-from middle school through grad school-I'd read parts aloud just for the fun of seeing where the discussion would go. Keep it in mind for adult book groups, too. KLIATT Codes: A-Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 304p. bibliog. index., Ages 17 to adult.
— Karen Reeds
Borrowing her title from the name of the talking doll manufactured by Thomas Edison, essayist Wood examines historical automata and the often-anxious reaction of the humans that came into contact with them. Recalling a mechanical duck that digested food; "The Turk," a mechanical chess player (secretly controlled by a human being); and Edison's Eve, she suggests that human reaction to these pre-robotic forms may offer clues to how we as a species will deal with the advent of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Kirkus Reviews
British journalist Wood profiles roboticists with castration complexes and other men, both real and fictional, who thought they might somehow be able to create life. From Icarus to Dr. Frankenstein and beyond, these inventors display a mechanical ingenuity that appeals to the author almost as much as the Freudian aura of all their endeavors. Despite the title, Wood's favorite seems to be Jacques de Vaucanson, a French designer who crafted bizarre automata in the mid-18th century. His moving musicians on pedestals were the toast of Europe (one flutist had a 12-song repertoire), but his crowning achievement was a quacking, waddling, clockwork duck that could gobble up bits of food and, after an appropriate interval, defecate. By the time it was revealed that possibly green-dyed breadcrumbs were stored within the duck for effective release, Vaucanson had moved on to revolutionize French silk manufacture. Mechanical humanoids that could write poetry, play chess, tell fortunes, etc., may not have much in common with today's software-driven laboratory robots, but Wood finds the sentiments of compulsion and fascination ("They register emotions but do they realize what emotions they're registering?") to be a constant passed from tinkerer to cyberneticist. She has her way with Thomas Edison, finding the Wizard of Menlo Park to be an opportunistic misogynist who stuffed his newly minted phonograph into the body of a "talking doll" that sold for $10, about a week's wages for a factory worker. In the same vein, she introduces an obscure French novel whose Edison-like protagonist creates the perfect woman for a love-crazed client, annotating it with quotations from the real Thomas A. to buttress hercontention that he looked at a woman and saw a product that could be improved. A rigorously researched, clever, and obliquely feminist look at what happens over the ages when the Pygmalion complex is closeted in a well-equipped workshop.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One - The Blood of an Android

To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

He was sure it was to be his last trip. The philosopher René Descartes had been summoned by Queen Christina of Sweden, who wanted to know his views on love, hatred, and the passions of the soul; but although he was happy to correspond with the Queen, Descartes was loath to become part of her court. He felt, he said, that "thoughts as well as waters" would freeze over in Sweden and, since that winter was particularly harsh, he believed he would not survive the season. He even feared, he wrote to a friend, "a shipwreck which will cost me my life." But Christina's whim was his command. Filled with foreboding, he packed his bags, taking all of his manuscripts with him.

He was travelling, he told his companions, with his young daughter Francine; but the sailors had never seen her, and, thinking this strange, they decided to seek her out one day, in the midst of a terrible storm. Everything was out of place; they could find neither the philosopher nor the girl. Overcome with curiosity, they crept into Descartes's quarters. There was no one there, but on leaving the room, they stopped in front of a mysterious box. As soon as they had opened it, they jumped back in horror: inside the box was a doll-a living doll, they thought, which moved and behaved exactly like a human being. Descartes, it transpired, had constructed the android himself, out of pieces of metal and clockwork. It was indeed his progeny, but not the kind the sailors had imagined: Francine was a machine. When the ship's captain was shown the moving marvel, he was convinced, in his shock, that it was some instrument of dark magic, responsible for the weather that had hampered their journey. On the captain's orders, Descartes's "daughter" was thrown overboard.

It's hard to know if this story is true. Descartes did go to Sweden, and did, as he had feared, die there, six months later. He had, in fact, attempted to build some automata earlier in his life (one of his correspondents reported that Descartes had plans for "a dancing man, a flying pigeon, and a spaniel that chased a pheasant"), and he continued to be interested in mechanical toys. But the events on the ship read like a too-perfect fable-about science falling prey to the God-fearing crowd, about the threatening, uncanny power of machines, about the rational philosopher who has an almost superstitious relation to the product of his own mind: he names it, he calls it his daughter-and whether or not the story is made up of literal facts, it must, in a sense, be true to some metaphorical purpose: what is the use of telling it? (It has been told many times since Descartes's death).

Descartes did have a daughter, and her name was Francine, but by the time this story is said to have taken place, Francine had been dead for many years. She was born in 1635, to a servant named Hélène Jans, whom Descartes never married. She lived with her father, at least some of the time, in the Netherlands, and he was planning to take her with him to France, when she died of scarlet fever, at the age of five. He told a friend that her death was the greatest sorrow of his life.

Seen from this angle, the Descartes of the story comes across, not as the reasoning philosopher, but as a fallible human being, distraught, nine years later, by the death of his child. Unable to mourn her, he constructs a simulacrum of the girl, gives it the power of motion, names it after her. If death was, as the following century liked to call it, "suspended animation," then Descartes, in animating this doll, had defied mortality and resurrected his daughter. Perhaps he had even done something, symbolically, for his own lifespan. Some years earlier, when he had been focusing his work on medicine, Descartes had written that he thought he could live to be a hundred. Francine died shortly after that. The making of the doll might be seen as an attempt to counter the terrible dashing of his hopes of extended life; and it seems fitting then that the ageless clockwork figure should have been destroyed on the trip where he was eventually to meet his end. This would suggest that the sailors might have been right to fear the object, not in itself, but because of Descartes's strange attachment to it.

Perhaps, however (since we cannot be sure of Descartes's intentions), the story can only be understood as one put about by later generations, in which case what is interesting is the confusion of the culture behind it. The fable is a new configuration, built up out of anxiety. It describes, in the mind of the storyteller, and in that of the audience, an uncertainty about categories. What is the difference between a person and a machine? Where is the line between a child and a doll, between the animate and inanimate-in other words, between life and death? Will reason win out over randomness? Will God get the travellers to Sweden? What can we know for sure?

It seems barely surprising that these concerns should have been traced back to, or posthumously inserted into, the life of Descartes, who is often referred to as the father of modern philosophy. They are philosophical problems (philosophy, until the nineteenth century, included all branches of science: mechanics, astronomy, botany, chemistry, anatomy, and so on), but they were relevant to everyone. Descartes's contemporaries and, more particularly, his immediate successors were moving from an age inhabited by alchemists and charlatans to one in which science was to be made transparent and accessible to all. A story is told about a Dutch cobbler who was teaching himself mathematics and wanted to discuss Descartes's method with him. Twice he visited the philosopher, and twice he was turned away by servants, who looked at his scruffy clothes and assumed he was a beggar. He rejected their master's offer of money, insisting that he only wanted "to speak of philosophy." On the third visit, Descartes welcomed him amongst his friends, and the cobbler, according to one of Descartes's biographers, "became one of the foremost astronomers of this [the seventeenth] century." It was also said of Descartes that he entertained the sick with mathematics.

The shift from exclusive knowledge and dark quackery to universal enlightenment was, however, an uneasy one. There was an abundance, in the eighteenth century, of manuals destined to train "ordinary minds" in the ways of physics and other related subjects. They had titles like "Philosophical Amusements" and "Mathematical Recreations"; they were meant both for pleasure and education, or education as pleasure. But although the Enlightenment project was to remove the veil from what the charlatans had previously peddled, the contents of these manuals were still on occasion called magic-and the general public, one imagines, must have found it hard to distinguish between sorcery and science.

Descartes had laid the foundations for one of the central ideas of that period: the notion, taken up by anatomists and philosophers alike, that man is a machine, and can only be understood as such. You could say that androids were a crucial part of Descartes's thought-his Treatise on Man, which was published after his death, is founded on a comparison between a human being and a hypothetical "statue or machine," which operates like a clock or a hydraulic fountain. He had already put forward a "beast-machine" hypothesis, in which he argued that animals were machines, made up of mere matter, and that all of their faculties could be explained by mechanical means. The difference between beasts and men, he said, was that humans possessed a "rational soul," whereas animals were incapable of reasoned thought (the cogito, "I think therefore I am," sets out what separates us from matter). However, the idea that the soul was the source of human life was to become very contentious, and the atheist philosophers of the eighteenth century stretched Descartes's beast-machine premise to include human beings as well. It was even suggested that Descartes had meant to say this all along, but had been too afraid: his hypothetical moving statue was not an analogy, a later thinker said, but plainly a description of ourselves. His masking rhetoric was just a clever "ruse," "to get the theologians to swallow a poison."

So the man most famous for the dictum "I think therefore I am" was as interested in the way bodies worked as he was in the function of the mind (whilst Descartes was conducting his own anatomical investigations, the local butcher would deliver animal corpses for him to dissect at home). Neither the idea that men are machines, nor, conversely, the machines that were constructed to look like men, can be properly understood without him.

Jaquet-Droz's writing automaton in Neuchâtel is known to have scrawled, on some occasions, the words "I think therefore I am." At other times, it has written a more ironic tribute: "I do not think . . . do I therefore not exist?" It's a perfect riddle, of the kind many automata conjure up. The writer, a mere machine, is able to declare that it cannot think. Clearly, however, it does exist: and if it is able to communicate the fact that it cannot think, is it possible that it can think after all? Might the machine be lying? What is the difference between the automaton that writes "I do not think" and a person who, having lost the power of speech, is obliged to write that sentiment or its opposite on paper?

In this context, what the fable about the ship finally represents is the throwing overboard of one of Descartes's great contributions to philosophy, anatomy, and mechanics. Science was cast out to sea.

Indeed, for the supporters of these ideas, there was much to fear. The power of the church was oppressive, and would remain so for some time. Descartes had originally written The World, of which the Treatise on Man is the second part, in the early 1630s, but he had abandoned it on hearing of the fate of Galileo, who had been put under house arrest by the Roman Inquisition after supporting the claim that the earth moved around the sun. What would have been Descartes's first book became his last. He was not an atheist, but some of his ideas were seen as such, and he understandably feared the fickle interpretations of the church. He wrote to a friend of Galileo's conviction,

I was so surprised by this that I nearly decided to burn all my papers, or at least let no one see them. For I couldn't imagine that he-an Italian and, I believe, in favour with the Pope-could have been made a criminal, just because he tried, as he certainly did, to establish that the earth moves . . . I must admit that if this view is false, then so too are the entire foundations of my philosophy, for it can be demonstrated from them quite clearly. And it is such an integral part of my treatise that I couldn't remove it without making the whole work defective. But for all that, I wouldn't want to publish a discourse which had a single word that the Church disapproved of; so I prefer to suppress it rather than publish it in a mutilated form.

No matter how Descartes tried to appease the devout, however, the opposition between philosophy and religion was set. An eighteenth-century nobleman, speaking both of that philosopher's accessibility and the stubbornness of the monks, commented with chauvinistic wit that "fifteen years after the printing of Descartes' works, ladies reasoned much more sensibly in metaphysics than three-fourths of the nation's theologians."

Hence Descartes's careful insistence that the machine in his treatise is not a man, but only "a statue or machine . . . which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us." This machine is composed of a body and a soul: in the Treatise on Man he describes the body without the soul, and intended to describe the soul separately; but since this latter part of the treatise has been lost, what we are left with is a mechanical interpretation of everything in us except reason. And-though this conclusion may not have been intended-reason seems barely necessary, since not only do our lungs work like bellows and our blood flow as in a hydraulic system, but our memory, dreams, sleep, passions, hunger, pain, dizziness, and sneezes can all be accounted for mechanically. The treatise is a philosophical proposition stated in the language of medicine, an anatomical map of our insides, a description of the functions of human nature as if they were the various, linked junctures of a pinball machine. Descartes writes in conclusion: "I desire . . . that you should consider that these functions follow in this machine simply from the disposition of the organs as wholly naturally as the movements in a clock or other automaton follow from the disposition of its counterweights and wheels."

Mechanistic philosophy found a number of supporters, but the most radical and most openly atheistic upholder of the man-machine thesis was an eighteenth-century physician named Julien Offroy de La Mettrie. Curiously, La Mettrie had intended, early on in his life, to enter the church. He studied philosophy and natural science at a distinguished school (also attended by the future editor of the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot), which, during the time he was there, had begun to teach the works of Descartes, until then banned from most curricula.

A family friend advised him to go into medicine, and persuaded his father to accept this more lucrative alternative to theology. La Mettrie went to Holland to study under the physician Herman Boerhaave, who laid a great deal of emphasis on clinical instruction and deduction from practical experiment. Boerhaave aimed to interpret medicine according to the laws of mechanics: when it came to understanding the function of a particular organ, he wrote, it was the mechanicians whose "oracles should be consulted." Boerhaave was to have a lasting influence on La Mettrie, who later translated many of his teacher's works into French.

La Mettrie went on to set up a local practice in Brittany; he wrote medical treatises on vertigo and venereal disease, and was employed as a doctor to the French national guards. After writing a controversial, mechanistic treatise entitled The Natural History of the Soul, he lost his job, and all copies of the book were condemned to be burned by the public hangman. From then on, it seems, La Mettrie built up quite a collection of enemies: he had alienated the theologians, then he satirized other doctors; he was ostentatiously hedonistic, and wrote books on laughter and sexual pleasure, all of which behaviour caused further offence.

He was forced to flee to Holland to publish his next book, even though it was published anonymously. L'Homme machine (literally, "The Man Machine," but translated as Man a Machine), La Mettrie's most famous work, appeared in Leyden in 1747, and the publisher was immediately forced by the church to deliver up all copies for burning. As soon as the author's identity was suspected, La Mettrie had to escape once again, this time to Prussia, where he was welcomed and supported by Frederick the Great. Frederick, who wrote a eulogy to him after his death, made La Mettrie his personal physician, appointed him to the Royal Academy of Sciences, and was thought to have shown him a degree of favouritism that made him the envy of others in the King's circle.

Meet the Author

Gaby Wood attended Cambridge University and has been a regular contributor to The Guardian and the London Review of Books. She is the author of a short work of nonfiction, The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness, and is now living in London, where she is a staff writer for The Observer. This is her first full-length book.

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