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american automata : essay: american automata
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American Automata
by Daniel Canty, adapted from the French by the author

This text is adapted from Êtres artificiels (Montréal: Liber, 1997), a book-length history of automata in nineteenth-century American literature. Used by permission of the publisher.

Introducing American Automata
The automaton story has long been considered a European genre, epitomized by Hoffmann's classic tale "The Sandman", which became the subject of Sigmund Freud's seminal essay on unheimlich, the "uncanny." However, American authors practiced it with uncommon frequency. At least nineteen examples exist - perhaps more than in Europe - as though the Americans were inventing a make-believe European genre.

American stories about artificial beings can be grouped according to the two main categories of the literature of artificial beings: the organic and the inorganic. The "organic" stream concerns stories that explore themes similar to those of Shelley's Frankenstein. Sometimes authored by medical doctors, these are frequently set in a European (and gothic) décor, and generally involve a deranged scientist experimenting on the mind and/or body of a romantic victim whose fiancée generally suffers terribly. Numerous examples of these "American Frankensteins" are to be found in the magazines of the nineteenth century.

It is the stories of the second stream, those concerned with "inorganic" beings, that I now invite you to discover. They deserve a place of choice in the genealogy of our insecurities. They can be seen as the cousins of the golems, animated statues, and other eidolons that since the dawn of time have incarnated the archetypal figure of a constructed man. They can also be seen as the imaginative precursors of the robots, cyborgs, and aliens of the twentieth century.

Maelzel's Chess-Player
Edgar Allan Poe, 18361

I would call Edgar Allan Poe's "Maelzel's Chess-Player" the first American automaton story. This text presents all of the characteristics of a well-crafted, honestly constructed essay. It can, however, be argued that Poe conceived his first tale of "ratiocination" (to use his term) with this story.

Baron Von Kempelen invented the artificial chess-player (costumed as a Turk) in 1769 to amuse the imperatrix Maria-Theresa. After his death, his son sold the automaton to Johann Nehopuk Maelzel, himself a mechanician. Maelzel began touring the courts of Europe with the automaton, and started an American tour in April of 1826. He visited New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and an "explanation" of the chess-player's mysterious functioning was published in each of these cities. These "solutions" were always inspired by a pamphlet authored by a young mathematician, Robert Willis.

Poe first saw the automaton during Maelzel's visit to Richmond in the winter of 1835-1836. When Maelzel first went to Richmond in 1834, the automaton was not able to play because Maelzel's assistant, a man named Schlumberger, was sick.

In his essay, Poe labours to demonstrate how the operation of Maelzel's chess-playing automaton must be attributed to human agency rather than to the functioning of a pure mechanism. Poe thought that Schlumberger was hiding in the machine during the game, and that he moved between hidden compartments as Maelzel opened up the automaton's insides to convince the public of his honesty. Poe predicted that Schlumberger observed the game through the Turk's gauze robe, and that the assistant's right arm, bent back upon his body, activated the Turk's left arm to move the pieces.

It turns out that Poe was wrong about some of the particulars, but no matter. By discrediting Maelzel's chess-player, he attained a wider objective: answering questions about the intelligence of machines in the negative. For Poe, stating that a machine knew how to count signified nothing more than just that. But conceding that it knew how to play chess would have meant that it actually knew how to think.

Deep Blue, the machine that recently challenged world-champion chess player Andreï Kasparov, was an expert system programmed to cut through the foliage of possibilities with its heuristic axe. Poe lived before the reign of stochastics and fuzzy logic, and did not understand that machines would eventually play chess as well (or almost as well) as any man. His anxiety in the face of Maelzel's seemingly intelligent machine would never leave his successors in the genre.

Brigadier Brevet General John A. B. C. Smith, Cyborg
Edgar Allan Poe, 18392

Poe wrote another tale that qualifies as an automaton story. In "The Man that Was Used Up," the tale's narrator tries to elucidate the mystery surrounding Brigadier Brevet General John A. B. C. Smith, a veteran of Indian campaigns whose perfect exterior appearance dazzles the senses.

In order to calm a nervous disorder that afflicts him at the least sign of mystery, the narrator questions the members of his mundane circle about the General's secret. Each time he tries to do so, the same scenario is repeated: his interlocutor launches into a series of apparently unrelated exclamations about his present occupation, the marvels of science and technology, the perversion of Indians, and Smith's bravado.

Indeed, as soon as the word "man" is pronounced, a defense mechanism launches some member of the community into free associations. During church, a priest sermonizess about "mandragora." During a game of whist, one of the players speaks of Captain Mann's recent duel. At a dance, a lady starts an argument about the title of one of Byron's dramas ("Man-Fred" or "Man-Friday"?).

Needless to say, the narrator's frustration doubles at each encounter, so that he finally decides to visit the General himself. He then discovers that the General is in fact a kind of cyborg. At least half his body has been replaced by shiny new prostheses. The General's slave reattaches his master's artificial members one by one before the astonished gaze of the narrator. As if by magic, the words "the man that was used up" are summoned in the narrator's mind, and his malaise is lifted from his soul. It is as though the physical reconstruction of Smith were the necessary solution to the narrator's inquest.

It would seem that the taboo of which the General is the object transforms the community into a well-oiled defense mechanism whose goal is, ultimately, to preserve appearances. In fact, the queer - and automatic - reactions of the narrator's entourage suggest that his nervous affliction is common in his mundane circle, and that a shared endeavour of dissimulation was the only viable solution to this ill. The narrator's investigation thus proceeds much like an inoculation: the many social encounters furnish him with a gradual exposition of the General. The final spectacle of the cyborg's reconstruction is no more than the last in a series of treatments which aim to make the narrator accept the General's mechanical half as a given, to be forgotten in favour of a pretense of humanity.

Owen Warland's Butterfly
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 18443

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful" illustrates one of its author's central concerns: the uncomfortable proximity of puritanism and transcendentalism in the American soul.

This story concerns the torments of Owen Warland, the clockmaker of an anonymous village. Obsessed by the construction of a mechanical butterfly, Owen neglects his business. Peter Hovenden, his master while in apprenticeship, frequently visits his workshop to lecture him. Yet Peter's daughter, the fair Annie, seems to understand Owen's endeavour. Owen falls in love with her, but her father marries her to the village smith, Robert Danforth, who gives her a son. Notwithstanding the depressive episodes incurred by Peter's visits, Owen eventually finishes his butterfly, only to have Peter's grandson destroy it under his grandfather's amused gaze. Owen, however, has reached a higher state of consciousness of which the butterfly was only the external symbol. His creation of artificial life has brought him to God's perspective, and Owen's soul is absorbed by the contemplation of a transcending Reality upon which the destruction of the butterfly has no more effect than any other event of material existence.

The five characters of "The Artist of the Beautiful" are actors in an internal drama that takes place in a theatre of symbols. Hawthorne's allegorical intentions are clear: Owen is the apostle of transcendentalism, and Peter his puritan adversary. Their opposition translates this American dilemma, and Owen's beatific victory indicates which side Hawthorne was on, and which side he saw as God's.

Bannadonna's Slave
Herman Melville, 18554

Herman Melville's "The Bell-Tower" is as much political as metaphysical in intent. It relates the story of Bannadonna, an Italian of the Renaissance who constructs a second tower of Babel. This tower is crowned by an enormous (although flawed) iron bell that Melville claims to be history's first clock-jack.

Bannadonna commits the same sin as the builders of Babel: he sees in Man and his technological powers "the true God." His creations become the symbols of his crimes, as well as the avengers of God and Nature. During the casting of the bell (which calls to mind America's Liberty Bell), Bannadonna kills one of his workers. Bits of the dead man's skull mar the bell's surface. The flawed bell becomes a symbol for a flaw at the heart of Bannadonna's project. At the end of the tale, Bannadonna's own head is crushed by the hammer of his automaton bell-ringer, who betrays disquietingly life-like qualities throughout the story. It is then that we understand that the bell's impurity is linked to the slaves, technological and otherwise, who give Bannadonna (and, on an allegorical level, America) his power. As it turns out, they are also the origins of his fall.

Bannadonna conceives his automaton as the first prototype of a new race of slaves, and his murder repeats the classic motif of the slave turning against his master, revealing the self-destructive nature of the master's powers. Bannadonna believes in the soullessness of his workers, his automaton, and the very world. He perceives the world and its inhabitants as a theatre of puppets where he is the puppeteer. He never realizes that this is no more than a role imposed by the mechanism of tragedy. Thus, Bannadonna becomes the victim of his own beliefs, killed by a mechanism in which he imagines that he sees the universe's governing principle.

Friar Bacon's Brazen Head
William Douglas O'Connor, 18575

William Douglas O'Connor, a writer whom literary historians remember mostly because he was Walt Whitman's best friend, started writing an automaton story in 1857. "The Brazen Android" was finally published posthumously in 1891. As this story shows, Whitman's was not the only cause that O'Connor embraced.

"The Brazen Android" is a retelling of the legend surrounding the construction of an omniscient talking head by the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, now commonly recognized as a progenitor of the scientific method. The legend tells of how Bacon tried to learn, from an enchanted brazen head, the formula for the construction of a bronze wall to protect England from invaders. After seven years of toil, the head animated while Bacon and his assistant Bungey were sleeping, then went back to its former inanimate state.

In "The Brazen Android", O'Connor retells the legend in an entirely positive light. He shows particular ingenuity in his recycling of historical material, which he interprets through the science and politics of his time. The brazen wall becomes a metaphor for Bacon's endeavour to liberate the people from the tyranny of Henry III. He constructs the brazen head in order to fool the King, who is called upon to visit a merchant whose guest room adjoins Bacon's workshop. The friar's plan is to have the automaton enter the King's room through a secret door and coerce him into an alliance with Simon de Montfort, a representative of the people and the barons in their alliance against the King.

It is obvious that O'Connor recognizes in Bacon an apostle of positivism, and in de Montfort the representative of democracy - two very American ideals.

Bacon's subversive plot, however, is foiled by the return of his Paduan master, Malatesti. The master thinks Bacon is the devil, and that he wants to use his android as the vehicle for the creation of a new and superior brazen race: one free of the prison of the flesh and able to remember the Platonic world of idealities. Malatesti symbolizes superstition and the fear that it implies. Powered by a mechanism strongly remindful of nineteenth-century steam machines, the android explodes before it can serve its end.

Bacon's ruse fails in the end because it relied on falseness. He repents his attempted trickery by setting out to write his treatises on science, an act that reaffirms his belief in the superiority of truth. Bacon's servant dies in the explosion, and he buries his slave in a free man's sepulchre. It is as though Bacon's defeat has taught him the only true ideals: those of O'Connor, a democratic, positivist, abolitionist American writing on the eve of the Civil War.

General Uomo's Memory
H. D. Jenkins, 18726

H. D. Jenkins' "The Automaton of Dobello" is written in an elegant prose remindful of National Geographic or the refined writing of Victorian tour guides. The text presents itself as the story of a trip to Dobello, a city of former importance located near the Italian border in the Swiss Alps.

Curiously, the city no longer appears on any maps, and borders a huge lake that has nothing in common with the diminutive dot on the narrator's charts. Legends circulate in the surrounding regions of a wondrous automaton built in the fourteenth century that makes an appearance in Dobello once every hundred years. Naturally, the narrator will be witness to this singular spectacle, which is also linked to the repressed memory of a traumatic event in Switzerland's history.

The automaton has been built in the likeness of General Uomo, leader of the Swiss forces during a period of resistance against Italian invaders. Legend has it that his city's secret location - protected by fortresses hidden in trompe l'oeil on the mountainsides, and by an elaborate maze of passes and rockslides - was sold to the enemy by three traitors. The following siege saw General Uomo retire to his castle and order the building of a large annex to the town church. In this annex, he had the three traitors buried alive in tombs above which his automaton likeness was made to preside.

Every century, according to Jenkins's tale, this memory in the shape of a machine reminds the Swiss population of the treachery. However, the story's narrator is not unnerved by this horrific sight, irrupting as it does with almost unbelievable timing into a religious ceremony. He maintains the critical stance of the amateur archaeologist, and tries to rationalize the machine's functioning. He proposes various elucidations of its mechanism, all of which have more in common with eighteenth-century machinery than fourteenth-century technology. These are brought to bear with such critical restraint that this automaton, which appears as rarely as comets in the skies, comes to seem almost plausible.

This attitude is part of Jenkins' deliberate strategy of toning down the fantastic character of these events so that his tale will be taken for a historical reality. In "The Automaton of Dobello," a rudimentary automaton becomes the vehicle for an abstract force where memory is confounded with shame, and where the fantastic hides behind a mask of rationality. H. D. Jenkins, if not a pseudonym, was probably a Presbyterian pastor, and "The Automaton of Dobello" his sole fictional endeavour. We can thus ask ourselves whether the rhetorical elegance of this tale was not, after all, a convenient means for a priest and a gentleman to perpetrate gothic horrors without soiling his hands.

Doctor Rapperschwyll's Brain
Edward Page Mitchell, 18797

Edward Page Mitchell was one of the most widely read, appreciated, and imitated authors of his time. Yet he was unknown to the public at large, publishing every one of his stories anonymously as news items in the New York Sun - the newspaper he edited. Together, his stories announce most of the themes of modern science fiction. It should not then be surprising that he wrote a remarkable automaton story, "The Ablest Man in the World" (1879).

This satirical piece is true science fiction insofar as it extrapolates from an existing technical innovation, Charles Babbage's analytical engine. The narrator of this tale is a close friend of its main protagonist, Fisher, an American card-shark gone to Europe to "fish." His singular adventure is brought about by a fortuitous mistake: Fisher is accorded the title of "Doctor" by the majordomo of the German Hotel where he resides.

General Ignatieff, assistant to the Russian Tzar, is also a resident at the Hotel together with his suite. This includes the young Baron Savitch, one of the richest and most brilliant young men of Russia. Baron Savitch falls ill while Ignatieff is absent, and one of the General's assistants asks Fisher for his "doctor's" expertise. After some protestations, Fisher sees that resistance is futile, and decides to treat the patient's queer nervous symptoms with a shot of Kentucky whisky. The Baron is then afflicted by a strong headache and requests that Fisher unscrew the top of his phrenologically perfect head! This operation is interrupted by the return of Doctor Rapperschwyll, Savitch's physician. Rapperschwyll is a retired clockmaker from Zurich, and Savitch is in fact a young "vegetable," Stepan Borovitch, whose brain Rapperschwyll has replaced by a miniaturized and ameliorated version of Babbage's machine.

Rapperschwyll's aim (as usual with mad scientists) is to replace man with a higher species, more fit for governing the world. He therefore wishes to make his automaton self-reproductive. Fisher understands this when he learns that Savitch is to be married to a young American girl of his acquaintance - a union through which Savitch hopes to perpetuate his hybrid genus. Later, Fisher secretly returns to Savitch's room. There he administers another dose of Kentucky whisky, unscrews the Baron's head, and removes his mechanical brain, to be thrown into the sea as he returns to America.

Thus, faced with the perfect reasonings of the automaton, Mitchell preferred to make triumph a little American whisky. He showed that American confidence men were stronger still than European Machiavellis, and that a little human trickery goes a long way against mechanical manipulations.

The Artificial Mother
George Haven Putnam, 18948

George Haven Putnam's main endeavours were political, but he committed two tales to paper: "The Little Gingerbread Man" (1910) and "The Artificial Mother" (1894). The first is still read by children today, while the second is all but forgotten. It is an elaborate satire concerning science, technology, and the family that takes the form of an automaton story.

"The Artificial Mother" tells of a man named Tom (the narrator) who, tired of his wife's unremitting devotion to his twin children, constructs an "artificial mother" designed to allow him more time with his wife. The automaton is in fact nothing but a dream. However, its insubstantiality does not preclude it from shedding light on the human condition.

In a wonderful parody of techno-scientific babble, the story explains how Tom has replicated - through the conjunction of a vulgar mannikin, a miniature organ, a turkey's gizzard, and two mouse-skin drums - his spouse's motherly functions. The artificial mother rocks and croons like a true mother, and Tom maintains that the children (themselves witless, soulless little automatons) want nothing more from their mother than this automatic noise and motion. Like every mad mechanician before him, Tom dreams of armies of artificial mothers that would give back wives to all the fathers of the world.

In order to prove his theory on the soullessness of babies, Tom becomes a fatherly emulator of Poe, or perhaps Alan Turing, himself the father of modern computing. Tom stages a verification of his a priori conclusions: he places two dolls in the arms of his artificial mother and is himself fooled by the illusion. He even surprises himself by talking to and kissing the machine as if it were his real wife. Tom then proceeds one step further by placing his twin sons in the automaton's arms, glorying in the conclusion that babies, since they are satisfied by the machine, must indeed have no souls. Tom's wife Polly soon barges in on his little experiment and starts playing tug-of-war with the automaton for her babies. Tom confuses the two women - the natural and the artificial - while Polly's hysterical maternal instinct proves Tom right once again, affirming his belief that the maternal instinct of his spouse is purely automatic.

Polly finally calls the automaton a demon, once more identifying the machine as a source of evil, and the dream comes to an end with the babies flying off into the room and the automaton breaking into pieces. Thus, the merging of man (or woman) and machine is shown, once again, to be only briefly possible.

Moxon's Chess Player
Ambrose Bierce, 1909
Ambrose Bierce's 1909 tale of a murderous chess-playing automaton, "Moxon's Master", begins with the scientist Moxon talking philosophy with the narrator in his boudoir. This young man is questioning the scientist about the intelligence of machines. Moxon is convinced that machines can be said to think, but the narrator obstinately refuses to embrace his conclusions. During the course of their discussion, a loud noise emanates from Moxon's adjoining workshop. Moxon disappears into this closed room, and the narrator hears the sounds of a scuffle.

When Moxon emerges bearing scratches on his left cheek, he takes up the conversation where it left off, refusing to answer the narrator's queries about the contents of his workshop. The narrator believes that the scratches can be attributed to the ire of a woman, sarcastically gendering the machine Moxon pretends to keep in his laboratory. The young man then leaves Moxon's home in a rage. He wanders the streets, haunted by Moxon's formula: "Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm."

Convinced of Moxon's doctrine by force of repetition, he returns to the scientist's home. The workshop's lighted window shines like a beacon in the sleeping city. The front door and the workshop entrance have strangely been left unlocked. Nobody but Moxon and a hired blacksmith named Haley have ever seen the workshop. As the narrator enters the mysterious chamber, he sees Moxon facing a turbaned automaton over a game of chess. Moxon checks the automaton, who seems enraged at the scientist's move. The machine rises from its seat, knocking down the candle that lights the room. An instant later, a flash of unspecified origin reveals the automaton strangling Moxon. The narrator falls unconscious, and wakes up three days later in a hospital. Moxon's blacksmith, Haley, is watching over him. He tells the narrator that lightning struck Moxon's house and that the burnt remains of the scientist have just been put to earth.

The automaton of Bierce's story takes us back to "Maelzel's Chess Player," and to Poe's rhetorical staging that favours his views on the intelligence of machines. The opening line immediately exposes the story's core. We are introduced in media res to the conversation: "Are you serious? - do you really believe that a machine thinks?" On close inspection, the rest of the story comes to seem like an elaborate staging organized by Moxon to win the narrator to Moxon's point of view on the intelligence of machines. Various clues seem to indicate that the elusive Haley hides in the machine. Perhaps we are not witness to a true crime at the story's conclusion, but rather to a feigned one, coupled with an accidental fire caused by a bolt of lightning simultaneously striking down Moxon and his house.

Moxon's scheme turns sour when retribution comes down from the sky to strike him dead. The thunderbolt that destroys Moxon's workshop is as swift and terrible as the javelin of an avenging God. It is the symbol of Moxon's defeat, and of his folly in pretending that creation is nothing but an enormous machine. The automaton's destruction and the scientist's death carry a moral decree, and resolve the dilemma raised by the question of the intelligence of machines. If machines were intelligent then the soul, and therefore God, would not exist. Like many of his predecessors in the genre of the automaton story, Bierce argued against the Machine in favour of God and Man.

Conclusion: The Coming of the Future
The destruction of Moxon's automaton shows that the automaton story of 1909 still stubbornly refused to believe in its own inventions. Over seventy years after Poe wrote "Maelzel's Chess Player", an automaton chess player, as banal as it might seem to us, was still too fantastic to exist.

And then the world changed. In the early twentieth century, when machines were daily becoming more complicated and more familiar than those described by fiction, fear was bound to find other objects, other metaphors. The automata of fiction were eventually relegated to the scrap heap of literary novelty, and replaced by new beings incarnating fresh incredulities.

Today, despite our familiarity with The Terminator, Robocop, or HAL 9000 (the artificial intelligence of 2001: A Space Odyssey), we still do not believe that Deep Blue was really thinking when it first beat Andreï Kasparov at chess. Even so, some of us suspect that one day it might. Behind the dream of every thinking machine still lurks the ghost of the automaton, and of all the mongrel family of artificial beings. It seems that, in fiction and in technology, everything old can be new again.

Notes :

1. Edgar Allan Poe, "Maelzel's Chess-Player", in Complete Tales and Poems, (New York: Vintage, 1975): 421-439.

2. Edgar Allan Poe, "The Man that Was Used Up", in Complete Tales and Poems, (New York: Vintage, 1975): 405-412.

3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Artist of the Beautiful", in Selected Tales and Sketches, (London: Viking, 1987): 358-385.

4. Herman Melville, "The Bell-Tower", in Great Short Works of Herman Melville, (New York: Harper and Row, 1969): 223-237.

5. William Douglas O'Connor, "The Brazen Android", The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 67, #402 and #403, April and May (1891): 433-454 and 577-600.

6. H. D. Jenkins, "The Automaton of Dobello", Lakeside Monthly, vol. 8, #47, November (1872): 348-353.

7. Edward Page Mitchell, "The Ablest Man in the World", in The Crystal Man, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1973): 24-44.

8. George Haven Putnam, The Artificial Mother, (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons and The Knickerbocker Press, 1894).

9. Ambrose Bierce, "Moxon's Master", in Can Such Things Be?, (New York: Citadel, 1990): 49-57.

Links :


[http://www.online-literature.com/hawthorne/124 (link no longer active)]


[http://home.clara.net/mycetes/babbage (link no longer active)]



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