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Hello, Dolly!

1.

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 and introduced new regulations to make production more efficient. “Although not strictly automata,” Wood writes, “these machines were in a sense prostheses—extensions of men—or substitutes for men,” a suggestion of dark things to come. The sickly Louis also had another project in mind for Vaucanson, the production of a human android that would replicate the circulation of blood; a royal expedition to South America in 1735 had turned up the ideally suited material, rubber. But the project was eventually abandoned, a casualty of technical difficulties and what Wood mysteriously labels Vaucanson’s “disgust.”

A similar whiff of cruelty and ambivalence trails behind the next contraption she takes up, the famous chess-playing “Turk” of Wolfgang von Kempalen. Constructed in 1769 for the Empress Maria Theresa, the Turk consisted of a life-sized, turbaned figure mounted on a large box. The Turk caused another sensation across Europe, but Kempalen dismantled it shortly after its debut. Wood says only that he was “worried” by its success. Tom Standage, however, in his own lively and thoroughly researched recent history of the Turk, says that Kempalen wanted to be thought of for his many scientific accomplishments, not as a maker of trifles.1

The Turk was reassembled in 1781 at the request of Joseph II during an anti-Turkish campaign (ironic, considering that this Turk handily defeated most of its opponents). Exhibited in Paris, London, and elsewhere, it faced off against some of the best players in the world, along with such luminaries as Napoleon, Catherine the Great, and Ben Franklin. (As Standage points out, Franklin—a poor loser—neglected to record the outcome in his diary.)

After Kempalen’s death in 1804, the contraption fell into the hands of Johann Maelzel, the “philosophical instrument maker” to the Habsburg court, who launched a second European tour in 1818. Soon Maelzel brought the Turk to America, where it toured for ten more years, like a Broadway warhorse, eventually coming under the care of homegrown hucksters Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum before being destroyed in a Philadelphia fire in 1854.

No one seems to have thought the Turk itself was alive. As Edgar Allan Poe pointed out in an 1836 essay,2 Kempalen hadn’t even bothered to make the Turk look all that lifelike (though the articulated arm would later contribute to the development of artificial limbs). In fact, Kempalen liked to stand right next to the Turk and put his hand in his pocket before every move, as if to suggest that he was operating it by means of some kind of remote control. Wood doesn’t make much of it, but Charles Babbage, the early theorist of the computer, saw the Turk in London, and it got him wondering whether a chess-playing machine could in fact be built.

Instead, Wood works hard to suggest that the Turk posed a threat to the supremacy of human reason, and that most who saw it were not merely happy to be puzzled but were genuinely discomfited, if not terrified. “It was not mechanical ingenuity, the giving of imitated life,” that had earned Kempalen the label “a new Prometheus,” she writes, “but rather the act of playing with life, and the dangerous thrill of the riddle his invention proposed.”

But this dubious overstatement—none of the responses Wood quotes suggests anyone found the Turk particularly dangerous—is followed up by the kind of nimble turn, backed up by astoundingly thorough research, that distinguishes her book throughout. If the Turk itself appeared to usurp the human attribute of intelligence, the man cleverly hidden inside the cramped compartment, reduced while he played to nothing but pure mind, was himself dehumanized. In fact, Wood points out, there is a longstanding association between the practice of “mental chess”—played entirely in one’s head—and insanity. One young American player, Paul Morphy, lost his mind after a world tour playing blindfold chess, and died two decades later of what the British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones in a posthumous case study labeled “congestion of the brain.” At one point, blindfolded chess was banned in the Soviet Union as a serious threat to mental health. Today, the abstracted mental chess of the computer program Deep Blue certainly seems to agitate Garry Kasparov. Wood interviews him over a (short) game of chess in London, where he insists that a human player must have intervened with the computer program during the 1997 match in which he finally went down: “No! No!” Kasparov shouts at her. “Machine cannot beat me!”

Within a few decades of the Turk’s demise, there had emerged a mass market for automata with less than impressive intelligence. The real turning point in Wood’s wayward history is Thomas Edison’s invention, in 1886, of a talking doll that Wood calls “Eve.” Churned out by the thousands at his New Jersey factory, from a recipe featuring ingredients like asbestos and cast iron, the doll brought Vaucanson’s duck and his silk machine together in one of the first mass-produced devices of wonder.

The doll, which spoke by means of a phonograph embedded in its chest, was not among the more important of Edison’s 1,093 patents. But Wood, in a valiant effort of historical resurrection, suggests that its virtual absence from his biographies may in fact be proof of its significance: “Was it a project akin to Vaucanson’s abandoned blood machine?” she asks. “It is as if Edison’s large-scale attempt at creation was bound to fail, and had to be buried.”

Eve doesn’t seem to have entirely satisfied her customers. As one magazine writer complained, “The voices of the heavy little monsters are exceedingly unpleasant to hear.” Ever alert to tremors of the Uncanny, Wood writes that “the horror seemed to stem from the close physical resemblance of these products to human beings”—as if just about every exasperated parent in the world hasn’t called their child a monster on occasion. Furthermore, Wood never makes clear if these dolls, with their porcelain faces and heavy metal bodies (interestingly, the torsos were male), were in fact more visually lifelike than the rosy-lipped dolls still being produced by hand in Nuremberg and other European dollmaking centers.

Like Wood’s account of the chess-playing automaton, the story of Edison’s doll also tends toward psychopathology. Wood cites Iwan Bloch’s essay on sexual “Pygmalionism,” which describes the use of statues and “certain Parisian rubber articles” to satisfy lusty desires. (There’s an awful lot of rubber in this book.) Wood goes so far as to call the autocratic Edison “an industrial Pygmalion”—a pervert on an industrial scale?—and digs up a wonderfully sinister story (apparently unmentioned in any previous book about Edison) of one “A.B. Dick,” a Chicago businessman hired by the great inventor to conduct a quasi-undercover investigation of the European doll industry.

Wood certainly sees Edison as a bit of a creep himself. She gives a long summary of The Eve of the Future (1886), Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s proto-science-fiction novel in which a fictionalized Edison, surrounded by the trappings of a mad alchemist, struggles to bring the perfect woman into being. She also cites a strange quote from his diary:

Saw a woman get into a car that was so tall and frightfully thin as well as dried up that my mechanical mind at once conceived the idea that it would be the proper thing to run a lancet into her arm and knee joints and in-sert automatic self-feeding oil cups to diminish creaking when she walked.

Today Edison’s dolls languish in obscurity. Many were stripped of their phonograph recordings and sold as regular dolls following years of legal wrangling between Edison and the independent Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company, though a few survived intact. (One had its first public performance last February 11 on the occasion of Edison’s birthday.) But another of Edison’s mechanical imitations of life, the motion picture, has gone on to conquer the world. Wood’s sparkling chapter on the origins of the cinema is a miniature tour de force that rescues “the magic of movies” from Oscar-night cliché.

The first known copyrighted moving picture, The Sneeze (1884), shows one of Edison’s employees inhaling snuff and then, well, sneezing. (Ironically, Wood points out that one of the pamphleteers who wrote on the Turk had argued that sneezing was one thing machines certainly cannot do.) Edison may be the father of cinema, but Wood is more interested in one of the many “midwives” of motion pictures, George Méliès.

Méliès, the son of a Parisian shoemaker, lived a life with the unmistakable arc of a fairy tale. Sent to London to work as an apprentice, he fell under the spell of the Egyptian Hall, a private museum of curiosities in Piccadilly, not far from the shop where he worked. There, he mingled with the likes of “Psycho,” a turbaned, Turk-like automaton that played whist, and “Zoë,” an android that sketched portraits of Charles Darwin and other famous figures.

Back in Paris, he was soon frequenting magic shops and performing among the waxworks and magic-lantern shows at the Musée Grévin. After his father’s death, he sold his share of the family business and bought the run-down theater of the late magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. Robert-Houdin, Wood writes, was among the first magicians to see that “mechanism and sleight of hand could share the same world.” (The magician and raconteur Ricky Jay concluded his recent off-Broadway show On the Stem with a reproduction of Robert-Houdin’s blossoming mechanical orange tree.) Méliès was to take this insight in a strange new direction.

It was above Méliès’s theater that the Lumière brothers set up their workshop and began refining a machine that could hold film steady while it was projected onto a large screen. The first showing of one of their films, Wood writes, gave the audience “what was probably the most extraordinary collective sense of the Uncanny for centuries.” On seeing a locomotive coming toward them, some viewers supposedly ran terrified from the room.

The Lumières refused to sell Méliès one of their Cinematographs, saying it had been invented for science, not magic. So Méliès started building his own machines from spare automata parts lying around his theater and started cobbling together films based on the magic tricks he knew. By 1897, movies had almost totally taken over the Robert-Houdin Theatre.

Wood calls Méliès “the inventor of film as fiction,” in contrast to the documentary-minded Lumière brothers. His own trademark move was the stop-substitution trick, whereby an object was replaced by another between frames. Legend has it that Méliès stumbled upon this effect while filming outside the Paris Opera one day: the camera jammed, and he realized later that the film showed, among other things, a bus suddenly transformed into a hearse. But Wood cites with approval the film historian David Robinson’s suggestion that Méliès was inspired by a book called Magic—Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, which included chapters on trick photography.

Many of the five-hundred-odd movies he made were filled with images of female mannequins coming to life, changing shape, or simply running amok. (Wood calls them “the celluloid Eves of the future.”) Decapitation was also a major theme. In The Man with the Rubber Head, which Wood calls “a comic updating of Descartes’s mind/body dualism,” Méliès plays with an inflating and deflating model of his own severed noggin.

It seems too much to say, as Wood does, that “when put together, the films were one long production line, on the scale of that used by Thomas Edison to fabricate his doll.” But when she goes on to describe Edison’s effort to bring global film production under his control, and to establish a quota requiring anyone who licensed his patented machinery to produce a thousand feet of usable film a week, the link between mechanized figures on screen and the tyrannies of the production line starts to make a certain sense.

Méliès, who held one of the seven original licenses, was driven out of business and reduced to running a small—what else?—toy stall at the Montparnasse railway station. The man who had overseen the alchemy by which “automata gave birth to the movies” continued to receive curious visitors until his death from cancer in 1938. His collection of automata, donated to a museum, were stored in a leaky attic until they too just fell apart.

2.

Automata, of course, have survived into our own time. Wood’s book begins with an obligatory visit to MIT’s fabled Artificial Intelligence Lab and concludes with a brief glimpse of the robotics lab at Tokyo’s Waseda University, home to a chewing machine made out of a human skull, a sense machine that “wakes up” if it smells ammonia, even a recreation of Vaucanson’s flute player that does a decent cover of “Yesterday.” (Apparently, there’s still no sneezing machine.) But Wood’s heart isn’t really in it. “Science fiction has mutated into urban fact,” she writes, remarking on the Blade Runner–like streetscapes of Japan, where “automata” cross the streets at “regimented street crossings.” But the facts have lost their intimate connection with magic, and Wood’s prose loses more than a little of its own.

But the field of robotics has hardly lost its own sense of demented wonder. Errol Morris’s 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control featured Rodney Brooks, the director of the MIT AI Lab, in the company of a circus trainer, a creator of fantastical topiaries, and the world’s leading expert on the naked mole rat (how long before we get this creature’s genome?)—all specimens of Homo bizarrus, subspecies white, male, and totally in the thrall of a very odd job. Brooks has just published his own book, Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, a highly readable overview of robotics that begins with Vaucanson’s duck and moves briskly through W. Grey Walter’s pathbreaking mechanical tortoises of the 1950s (which learned conditioned reflexes the same way any carbon-based animal does) to a radiant future when we will finally let go of our sense of “tribal uniqueness” and embrace a robot-enabled super-longevity—if the machines don’t kill us all off first, that is.

Brooks’s own research concentrated on so-called “humanoid robots,” mechanical life forms that know how to behave at a cocktail party. Cog, developed in 1993, has camera-enabled eyes that can track a per-son approaching it. Its successor Kismet can even participate in simulated conversation, making and breaking eye contact when appropriate and responding with charming, preprogrammed non sequiturs. Kismet doesn’t understand language, but it knows how to play the social game that defines our humanity. HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the exemplar of cold, disembodied, nonhuman intelligence, spoke but ultimately “could not be understood,” Brooks writes. “Kismet, with his fuzzy eyebrows and winsome facial expressions, cannot be misunderstood.”

Wood chats with Cog and Kismet, but she seems to be one of those people who, as Brooks puts it, “really do not know what to say” to a robot. By the twentieth century, she writes, “it seemed the worlds of science and amusement had taken resolutely forking paths,” and the one she prefers dead-ends in a tidy mobile home in a gated community near Sarasota, Florida. Here, at the end of her wayward history, she tracks down eighty-six-year-old Tiny Doll, the last surviving member of a once-famous family of midget performers.

The Schneider family were the Barrymores of the circus world. Discovered at Hamburg’s annual “freak market” in 1913, they came to America at the moment when Europe’s doll industry began its long decline. They performed as “the Dancing Dolls” at Coney Island’s Luna Park and later joined Ringling Brothers, where they had their own miniature railroad car. As Wood points out, audiences often felt as if they were being suckered by a set of mechanical dolls trying to pass as human.

Even before their prominent roles as the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, the Dolls had thriving film careers, often appearing in roles which revealed people’s inability to distinguish them from actual children. In 1925, Harry Doll starred with Lon Chaney in Todd Browning’s The Unholy Three, a caper about a vicious criminal gang. In one scene, Harry strangles to death a little girl who has mistaken him for a new younger brother. (The scene was deemed too shocking and was cut from the film.) Harry and the rest of the family also appeared in Browning’s notorious 1932 Freaks, a horror movie about vengeful circus freaks that sent some audience members fleeing from the theater like the Parisians terrified by the Lumière brothers’ oncoming locomotive.

When Wood finally finds herself outside Tiny Doll’s mobile home, she pauses to wonder if, “despite the equanimity of my research, I might not, in real life, know how to handle a meeting with a living doll.” But Tiny Doll, thirty-nine inches tall, turns out to be a gracious host with a slight German accent, a machine-gun laugh, and some great old stories. She also has her own cabinet of curiosities, a glass-fronted case full of miniature elephants. Wood, perhaps worried that this sentimental journey has taken her a bit too far off-theme (we sure aren’t in Kansas anymore, let alone Paris), can’t resist calling this “a reverse Promethean gesture.” Tiny, she writes, has “turned her favourite animals to stone, rendered them inanimate and shrunk them so that she could possess them. She had done to the elephants what, throughout her life, people in their imaginations had done to her.”

The philosophical toy may have gone into quiet Florida retirement, but its progeny would seem to have taken over the world. Hollywood’s ever-more-sophisticated and yet increasingly less special effects dominate screens from New York to New Delhi, while generations of super-empowered robots may be gathering in labs and plotting to strangle us all.

Wood, however, is still enchanted by the melancholy of Vaucanson’s flute player and the cheerful gimcrackery of the circus. In her version, Tiny Doll is still big. It’s the rest of the world that got small.

  1. 1

    The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (Walker, 2002), p. 37.

  2. 2

    Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” originally published in the Southern Literary Messenger, is often said to be the place where Poe developed the method of logical deduction he would later use in stories like “Murder in the Rue Morgue.” Tom Standage, in his history of the Turk, thus calls Kempalen’s invention the unwitting father of the modern detective story.

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