“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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.