One day early in December, readers may have noticed a peculiar cat-and-mouse game in the pages of The New York Times. A story on the front page trumpeted yet another milestone in scientific history: the official release of the first rough draft of the complete mouse genome, which revealed a startling similarity between ourselves and our most persistent household pest. A story in the “Circuits” section described another dramatic product launch. FurReal, a new robotic cat developed by the toy giant Hasbro, has strokably soft fur, sparkling eyes, and the disarming habit of purring loudly and pressing against your hand. Though it can’t play fetch, or roll over, the $35, battery-powered feline is endowed with startlingly lifelike motion (thanks to a spine of interlocking plastic vertebrae) and marks an advance on the heavily armored plastic robot dogs already on the market. “You can make tricks that you would do one time,” explained Leif Askeland, the toy’s creator. “We preferred to focus on the emotional aspects of play. Nurturing and friendship are things that stay with you for a lifetime.”
Gaby Wood’s sprightly and imaginative book Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life looks back to the time when science and entertainment, the study of life’s mysteries and the attempts to build imitations of it, were one and the same. Her book itself is an ingenious miniature, a charming tour through some odd corners of scientific and cultural history: the development of lifelike automata, the history of the doll industry, the origins of cinema. It is also defiantly—and deceptively—whimsical. In a few short chapters, Wood is taking on no less a theme than the industrialization of wonder.
The quest for mechanical life has its roots in the ancient world, but Wood begins her story in Enlightenment Europe, where “the ambitions of the necromancers were revived in the well-respected name of science.” The eighteenth century was “the golden age of the philosophical toy,” and its most celebrated engineer was Jacques de Vaucanson.
For Vaucanson, recreating life meant imitating its processes and movements—most famously, its bowel movements. While he entertained audiences with automata that played the flute and the organ, his most celebrated invention was a copper duck that realistically “gulped” food through a flexible neck and then excreted it on a silver platter. First displayed in 1739, the duck caused a sensation. “Without the shitting duck,” Voltaire quipped, “there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.” A nineteenth-century dissection would later prove what some had already suspected. While each wing moved with the help of some four hundred movable parts, the digestion itself was a fraud: the duck simply stored the food in-side after eating and expelled some green breadcrumbs from a separate compartment.
The duck made Vaucanson famous, but in 1741 he sold his automata and turned to automation of a different kind. As Louis XV’s Inspector of Silk Manufacture, he designed new looms …