Frankenstein’s Many Friends: Science, Quackery and Automata

Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life , by Gaby Wood. Alfred A. Knopf, 269 pages,

Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life , by Gaby Wood. Alfred A. Knopf, 269 pages, $24.

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What makes you distinctly human? Is it your ability to calculate? To empathize? To find the Pinot pleasantly oaky? What if a machine could be taught to do these things? Could a machine ever feel dizzy, shy, creative, horny? (Some analytic philosophers are adamant that a computer will one day fall in love-maybe, but how about an analytic philosopher?) British journalist Gaby Wood’s new book, Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life , engages the questions that have bedeviled philosophy since Descartes first mused that “the body is nothing but … an earthenware machine.” It also traces the fate of the soul in an increasingly modern, secular, technological world. How does Gaby Wood manage to pull all this off so admirably, and with a minimum of Comp Lit gasbagging?

To begin with, she scrupulously avoids words like “fate” and “soul.” Instead, she concentrates on a single concrete subject: the various attempts, beginning in the Enlightenment, to simulate human and animal life by building machines, or automata. Ms. Wood’s wizard-like technicians remind us of the familiar fable and all its various elaborations-think of Pygmalion , Blade Runner , Pinocchio , Faust , Coppelia , The Nutcracker , Frankenstein , Being John Malkovich . She plays on the double sense of the word “automaton”: “It is either ‘a figure which simulates the action of a living being,'” Ms. Wood tells us, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary , “or, conversely, ‘a human being acting mechanically in a monotonous routine.'” Thanks to the quacks and tinkerers who designed automata over the ages, we now live in a largely prosthetic world-surrounded by machines that augment our own limited ability to move, to build, to see, to compute. As technology has advanced, as we’ve built increasingly human machines, we’ve also created more and more dehumanizing and robotic work for humans.

Ms. Wood’s story begins with Descartes, and right away we get a taste of her curious method of storytelling: She’s as interested in the public’s preoccupation with rumor and half-truth as she is in straight history. The stringent rationalism of Descartes’ Meditations may have helped unleash modernity, but, as Ms. Wood tells us, something else was unleashed alongside it: nostalgia for a lost world of fabulation and enchantment, a longing that made itself at home in the new world of Cartesian rationalism. For example, a series of peculiar legends sprouted up about Descartes soon after his death in 1650, stories about his daughter Francine. An actual Francine did exist: She was the illegitimate child of one of the philosopher’s servants; she died when she was 5, leaving Descartes bereft. But by 1700, there were rumors that she had been a little android, crafted out of clockwork, and that sailors on a voyage to Sweden had thrown her overboard, fearing something demonic from the lifelike machine.

By the middle of the 18th century, the questions that had preoccupied Descartes found a mechanical genius to bring them to life: the eminent French craftsman Jacques De Vaucanson, who devoted most of his career to constructing elaborate automata. Vaucanson’s most famous creation, his gold-plated mechanical duck, was the sensation of Europe. Its wing alone had “more than four hundred articulated parts,” as Vaucanson himself boasted. But the duck was a kind of mascot to France, Voltaire suggested wryly, because of its most celebrated skill: the ability to poop. A kind of P.T. Barnum avant la lettre , Vaucanson exhibited the duck, all the while publicly expatiating on its digestive abilities: Give it some grain, Vaucanson insisted, and the duck will pass the feed through its own internal “chemical laboratory,” into its ersatz “bowels, then to the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to emerge.”

The shitting duck was considered the acme of his storied career-because of it, Frederick the Great asked Vaucanson to join his Academy of Sciences. It was only decades later that, after passing through the hands of various pawnbrokers, the duck was inspected and found to be not exactly the chemical and mechanical marvel its creator advertised. Vaucanson had apparently only deposited some fecal-like green paste at the exit end of his machine. The duck’s digestive system was no more elaborate than a tube of gourmet tapenade.

Ms. Wood tells the story well. She allows fact and fable to blend for a while, leaving the reader to follow the story of Descartes’ daughter or Vaucanson’s duck much the way a contemporary of Descartes or Vaucanson might have. She resorts to the same method in her best chapter, which tells the story of Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Turkish Chess Player. Kempelen’s Turk was a life-sized mechanical torso mounted on a large pedestal. It could turn its head and roll its eyes, and with its left hand it played chess. No less a star attraction than Vaucanson’s duck, in its time the Turk took on Catherine the Great, Ben Franklin and Napoleon. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a long essay on the Turk, speculating on the nature of the Chess Player’s ability to think. For more than 60 years, on the continent, in England, throughout America, the robot drew huge audiences, on the premise it was the world’s first thinking machine. The suspicion that a human chess player sat immured within the Turk’s pedestal dogged the act for decades, and in the 1830’s the sham was exposed: The precursor to I.B.M.’s Deep Blue was little more than a puppet.

The builders of automata were men of the Enlightenment, but they were also-sometimes secretly, sometimes unconsciously-artificers and fabulists. The crowds gawking at their inventions wanted to see science on display, but also to have murdered superstitions fanned back to life, perhaps for the last time. Even that hardy American tinkerer, Thomas Edison, fits into this history. Edison’s own brand of snake oil was promoting himself as a lone genius, even though he presided over a factory of intellectual capital stocked with talented young inventors. And the public ate it up: Ms. Wood summarizes the storyline of a French sci-fi novel that imagined Edison as a kind of modern Faust, “surrounded by puffs of blue smoke, disembodied voices, and mechanical birds … . ” In the novel, Edison is a hothouse exotic who conjures, out of his laboratory, an ideal woman. In reality, Edison mused casually in his notebooks about designing the feminine ideal, but strove instead to mass-produce the first talking doll. Once again, the transformative magic of technology is deeply bound up with its banality.

Edison’s Eve is densely anecdotal and engaging, and almost frighteningly well-researched. Ms. Wood has the habit, like a superstar grad student, of ferreting out example after example to pad out her story. More restraint might have been nice: By the end of her book, we’ve had cameos from Diderot, Voltaire, Goethe, Poe, Ben Franklin, P.T. Barnum, Charcot and Freud, not to mention Binet (inventor of the IQ measurement), a full chapter on the wonderful Georges Méliès (inventor of the modern cinema), and a long digression on the sexual appetite of the dwarves who played the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz . Feminist and vaguely Marxist themes lie just beneath the surface, and Ms. Wood’s method of releasing them is too often to string together a series of teasing rhetorical questions. Nonetheless, she has written a lovely and often brilliant book; fewer dwarves, a handful of forceful thematic summations, and-who knows?-it might have sprung more magically to life.

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.

Frankenstein’s Many Friends: Science, Quackery and Automata