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

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 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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679451129
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/13/2002
Edition description: 1 AMER ED
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 7.76(h) x 1.18(d)

About 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.

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 wasshown 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.

Copyright 2002 by Gaby Wood

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsxi
1The Blood of an Android3
2An Unreasonable Game60
3Journey to the Perfect Woman111
4Magical Mysteries, Mechanical Dreams164
5The Doll Family213


Q: You begin your “Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life” at a very specific place and time: with the story of the philosopher Rene Descartes sailing to Sweden in the mid-17th-century, in the company of an android. Why this moment?
A: Although people have tried to construct mechanical simulations of human and animal life for millennia (from Plato’s contemporary, Archytas of Tarentum, to Albertus Magnus, a 13th-century Dominican monk), I wanted to show that it was only really during the Enlightenment that these attempts became more than practical enterprises: they were philosophical experiments as well. Descartes was an immediate precursor to the philosophers of the 18th century who were preoccupied with the question of whether humans were born with a soul, or were merely very complex machines. In their quest for an answer to this question, they built machines in the image of men and women, thinking: if men are just machines, then does a mechanically-constructed man amount to a human being?
Rather than being a craft, in other words, the art of mechanics became, in that period, a way of thought. The objects made by the mechanicians of the Enlightenment were puzzles, riddles, concrete attempts to answer conceptual problems: Who are we? What are we made of? What makes us human? Can we be replicated artificially? These questions, which we are still trying to answer today—at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence lab, at the cloning clinic of Severino Antinori—were first crystallized by Descartes and his followers.
Q: The inventors you cite in Edison’s Eve are men, and in talking about their creations you invoke the Greek mythof Pygmalion and Galatea, the story of a sculptor who falls in love with his statue of a beautiful woman. Why? What are the implications, throughout this history, of men falling in love with their lifeless creations? How much is the project of creating mechanical life caught up in the erotic?
A: It was intriguing to discover how many of these inventors were men. (In my research I came across only three women creators, all of whom were waxworkers—they made anatomical models for educational purposes.) In part, this might be seen to reflect something psychologists have called “womb envy”—men wanting to create life artificially since they are biologically incapable of pregnancy. (A version of this instinct has been ascribed by literary critics to Mary Shelley—who lost four children—in relation to Frankenstein, her fictional tale of artificial life.) But equally, when these men created artificial women, a note of eroticism was inevitably introduced. There was also a further note of misogyny. Why were artificial versions necessary? Why weren’t real women considered good enough?
As soon as one considers the notion of falling in love with one’s creation, all sorts of possibilities are implied. Is the artist falling in love with his creation because women should be the way men want them to be? Because it’s his own work—an essentially narcissistic instinct?
Because inanimate women—women without souls, as it were—are more appealing? Or because his erotic desires take the form of a fetish, in which case any doll would be preferable to the frighteningly real thing? It’s not difficult to see how these apparently artistic or scientific creations became the precursors to the modern-day sex doll.
Q: In a conversation with the director of the artificial intelligence lab at MIT, Rodney Brooks, you suggested that one of his robots may be expressing emotions, but not actually experiencing them, to which he replied: “But how do we know if it’s experiencing them?” How have audiences—and creators—tackled (or avoided) this question? To what lengths have humans gone to convince themselves of the human qualities of their mechanical creations?
A: I think the idea is not so much that the inventors have tried to convince themselves of their creations’ human qualities, as that we just don’t know exactly what qualities we can say they have. In other words, what would we call “human”? Historically, the audiences—more than the inventors—have been preoccupied with the mysterious life force behind these mechanical creatures. The famous chess playing “automaton” of the eighteenth century is a prime example. The automaton was a fake—there was a human chess player hiding inside it—and so the inventor’s aim was not to make it seem human, but to persuade people that it was a marvelous piece of mechanical magic. Audiences, however, were unconvinced of the mechanical ingenuity. They were certain the thing must have a soul, perhaps even a soul in cahoots with the devil. People were known to faint when watching the automaton play chess, and they sometimes made the sign of the cross when they walked into the room where it was exhibited. One of the greatest chess players of all time challenged the machine to a game, and reported that no other game had left him so exhausted, since his opponent in this case was unknowable, unquantifiable, and possibly ungodly. For these viewers, there was already something all too human about the automaton, and although they may have wanted to believe that it was only a machine, reason was not sufficient to explain it to them.
Q: You’ve titled the book after a lesser-known invention of Thomas Edison: a talking doll with a phonograph in its chest. Considering that it seems to have more limited “scientific” implications, why was Edison’s Talking Doll such a favorite of his? And why was it so quickly—and so nearly completely—lost to history?
A: Initially, Edison’s invention was a straightforward business venture. American industrialists were making a good deal of money at the time by designing parts for toys—usually joints, or some sort of sophisticated mechanism that would separate them from the rag dolls that were traditionally made and sold in the States. Because of Edison’s expansive and ambitious nature, a project that would otherwise have been a footnote had an entire building to itself, at least 250 factory workers at its disposal, and a production rate of 500 dolls a day. But it was more than just a commercial enterprise. From the moment Edison designed the phonograph—a machine that was immediately reported to be a way of resurrecting the dead, or proffering immortality, by preserving human voices—he imagined it in human form.
The doll, it turned out, was impractical and unpopular as a toy. It had a metal torso which made it too heavy for children to carry, and the speaking mechanism often broke down.
But in the midst of a booming toy industry, Edison was playing out a fantasy many mechanicians and philosophers had played out before him, that of giving human form to a mechanical replica of human life. He boasted that in inventing the phonograph he had created something that would outlive him and all his contemporaries: he had invented a form of immortality, which must mean by extension that he had made himself immortal. He was, in other words, playing God.
The book is named after this story because Edison is a perfect example of the ways in which madness can hide behind reason, and I found the idea of this famous man’s unfamous project very evocative. It’s like Frankenstein made industrial. And if there were any doubt about the story’s inherent spookiness, one has only to look at the way in which those dolls continue to haunt Edison’s old factory, which is now a museum. What became of them remains a mystery: few of them were ever sold, yet most of them are lost. Edison is said to have destroyed or buried them, but no one has found them. The ground around the factory has been dug up and scanned with metal detectors at various points, without success. What began as a lighthearted idea became a large-scale, doomed project, and had an ending akin to that of a forensic thriller.
Q: The magician-turned-filmmaker George Méliès used the technology of moving pictures to create the ultimate illusions: a man and his animate double; bodies perfectly dismembered, then reanimated; shrinking and exploding heads. Méliès made nearly 500 films, many of which are now classified as “horror” films. What is the relationship between fear and mechanical life?
A: I think fear, combined with awe or marvel, is a frequent reaction to mechanical life. Even when it’s not outright fear, as in science fiction films like Blade Runner or Robocop, there is often anxiety that stems from our uncertainty about what these mechanical things are made of, how autonomous they are, and what kind of threat they pose. It’s a discomfort Sigmund Freud called the “uncanny,” which he said arose in reaction to dolls and automata because the line between the lifeless and the living in them was so blurred.
Although many of George Méliès’s films were like one-minute jokes, or filmed magic tricks, they could also be seen as the precursors to a certain kind of horror or ghost movie. They played with apparently inanimate objects that turned out to be alive, guessed at what might suddenly appear behind you, and made mere puppets of human beings. Méliès did these things using a technology that was brand new—the art, or science, of cinema—and that new technology was feared by many.
Q: Your last chapter is devoted to the story of the Schneiders—a family of midgets, or “little people,” who called themselves the “Doll Family”—and to your meeting with the only surviving member of the family, Tiny Doll. What does their story have to do with “mechanical life”?
A: When I discovered that these siblings called themselves “the Doll family,” and that many circus audiences refused to believe they were human, I realized that their lives could be
seen as a peculiar condition. They were treated as if they were mechanical—manufactured rather than born—when many of the machines I’d written about were treated as if they were human. The Doll family were an inversion of everything I had come across in my research.
But the audience perception affected them, in a way that it could never affect the machines. You can’t hurt an android’s feelings. I wanted to trace, through these siblings, what the life of a “living doll” would be. If the other objects in the book really were alive, if dolls came to life as children often wish them to, what sort of a life could we imagine they would have? This, I thought, would be it. And yet, when I met the last of the living Dolls, I knew that the boundaries between what was human and what was not were no longer blurred—at least, not for her. She had unwittingly solved, in a way, the book’s problem: she knew who she was, and what she had suffered from was not so much a philosophical difficulty as straightforward prejudice.
Q: Your book is about the history of mechanical life in human experience. But looking forward, what are the uses of robots in today’s society—and tomorrow’s? What issues of morality arise as robots become more sophisticated?
A: In Karel Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots, which was written in the 1920s and which coined the word “robot,” a political activist arrives on an island where robots are being mass-produced. She claims that her mission is to represent the robots’ human rights. This begins as an absurdist joke, but inevitably begs the question of whether this new race should indeed have rights, human or otherwise. In the end, the slave-robots revolt, and what was in 1920 primarily a fable about labor relations might be read more strongly today as a story about the ethics of artificial reproduction. Once an organism is autonomous to a certain degree, it also has, presumably, a certain entitlement.
But attitudes vary according to the culture in question. For example, Rodney Brooks at MIT reports that Americans are very apprehensive about robots taking over their lives, even if it might be helpful, in the manner of a “webcam” in the home. In Japan, on the other hand, a roboticist explained to me that “robots are our friends.” Not only is there a culture in modern Japan built in large part on technology, but there is also a population problem there—very long life expectancy and a very low birth rate. Soon there will be no one to look after the elderly. So a robot that can help around the home or care for an elderly relative is welcome. Research into robotics is incredibly sophisticated, and meets with little resistance. Ideally, some happy medium between the American and Japanese attitudes would arise: there would be no obstacles to research, but there would also be a certain amount of reflection about the possible consequences.
From the Hardcover edition.

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