Have Robots… Always Been With Us?
Rebecca Morgan Frank on Books by Charles Dickens, Elizabeth King, Karel Čapek, and More
Early in 2019, news broke that a Buddhist robot priest, Mindar, was offering teachings of the Heart Sutra at Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto.
I was not surprised. Robots have aided humans in their quests to connect to the divine for centuries: predecessors include servants designed by Al-Ja ari to help a caliph perform ablutions, medieval Virgin Marys who could move their arms and heads, and, my favorite, a 16th-century robot friar whose movements included walking, striking his chest, and opening and closing his mouth as if in prayer or blessing. Robot monks are centuries-old news, as are robot swans who can fish and androids who can write and draw, play flutes, compete at chess, and serve you drinks. Don’t forget robot she-devils and talking heads and songbirds, lots of robot song birds.
Of course, I’m using the word robots loosely here to embrace automata, the self-moving machines that inhabit my latest poetry collection, Oh You Robot Saints! The human desire to create artificial life has been expressed across cultures throughout much of human history. Audiences for these creations once flocked to palace gardens and elite drawing rooms and galleries to be entertained by automata. Automata makers included engineers, artists, and, if you believe the stories, notable figures among poets (Virgil), philosophers (Descartes), and even a Pope (Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II).
Others’ creations have been purely literary. Makers of literary automata include Homer, Spenser, and E.T.A. Hoffman, and most of the automata makers in literature are men, with exceptions such as Charles Dibdin’s Hannah Hewit, which has the full title: Hannah Hewit, or, the female Crusoe. Being the history of a woman of uncommon, mental, and personal accomplishments; who… was cast away in the Grosvenor East-Indiaman; and became for there years the sole inhabitant of an island, in the South Seas. Supposed to be written by herself. What does Dibdin’s protagonist, Hannah Hewit, do when shipwrecked? She eventually builds a man, of course! An automaton replica of the husband she misses, thanks to a stash of books from the ship.
Which is to say, automata are everywhere, even on deserted islands, once you start looking. The following reading list is an eclectic sampling to help you navigate the world of automata that live in libraries. Welcome to the strange and curious world of early robots.
Gaby Wood, Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life
Wood opens with a hook of a tale: Descartes creates a small android in imitation of his dead young daughter and sails away to Sweden with her in his bunk. This is only the first of many fascinating stories, most of which deal in truths. Larger questions about humans imitating life are teased out through Woods’ compelling storytelling, including (spoiler alert) narratives of two 18th-century hoaxes: Jacques Vaucanson’s digesting duck, which appeared to eat and defecate in front of spellbound crowds, and the Mechanical Chess Player, also known as the Automaton Turk, which toured and played living players. Various incarnations of this automaton chess player have found their way into books and films over the last century, and the story is so riveting in Wood’s hands that, considering The Queens Gambit’s popularity, someone should seize the opportunity for a new film about this tricky automaton. Wood also follows the automaton over to the United States with the strange story of Edison’s failed attempt at making a talking doll. Listen to the recordings of the dolls in this PBS NewsHour video, and you’ll understand why they were not a success.
Adrienne Mayor, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines and Ancient Dreams of Technology
(Princeton University Press)
Was Pygmalion, to some degree, the first sex robot? Is realistic male chest armor the first artificial human enhancement? These are some of the assertions Mayor makes as she explores early imaginings of creatures that are “made not born,” and investigates aspects of “biotechne,” or “life through craft,” in tales of familiar mythical figures such as Hephaestus, Daedalus, Medea, and Pandora. Early robots are indeed the stuff of myths, as Mayor demonstrates in her unpacking of these early conceptions of artificial life; she also explores their materiality in ancient artifacts such as coins, vases, and mirrors. Perhaps most recognizable as a robot prototype is the hulking bronze automaton Talos, forged by Hephaestus, but Mayor teases out for the reader how these many myths of artificial life are precursors to the made automata and robots that follow. Mayor’s final chapter, “Myth and History,” does delve into the world of the made to note such engineers such as Philo, Heron, al-Jazari and Ma Jun, and crosses over into legends of automaton guardians of Buddhist relics in India. Through this guide to the ancient world of automata, Mayor reminds us that humans have already imagined pretty much everything.
Elizabeth King, Attention’s Loop
(Harry N. Abrams)
In sculptor and scholar Elizabeth King’s beautiful Attention’s Loop, photographs of her original android sculpture “Pupil” are interspersed with histories of automata and reflections on perception and making that bring together the philosophical and the tangible. She moves fluidly between explaining the process of imitating her own eyes and making the artificial eyes move, to reflecting on clay as biblical substance, material for Japanese master potters, and material for golem. The book follows her investigations as thinker and maker, providing a glimpse of her work on the 16th-century mechanical monk that is expanded in the online journal Blackbird and in Jessica Riskin’s expansive edited essay collection, Genesis Redux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life. This taste of King’s scholarly work may make you hunger, like me, for Mysticism and Machinery: A Sixteenth Century Automaton and Its Legend, her forthcoming collaboration with clockmaker W. David Todd and the one-of-a-kind photographer Rosamund Purcell. For now, Attention’s Loop is where you can meet King where we find so many automata makers–both fascinated with those who came before and working from her own imaginative life-making.
E.R. Truitt, Medieval Robots
(University of Pennsylvania Press)
I found E.R. Truitt’s book Medieval Robots on my living room coffee table, where my resident medievalist had left it, and opening it was a bit like being Alice falling into the looking glass: I discovered a whole world I didn’t know existed, one with mechanical monkeys and talking heads, with magical gardens full of automata and medieval romances in which automata guard tombs. Here you’ll find the fascinating story of Gerbert of Aurillac, his talking head, and his rise to Pope, but you’ll also find discussions of clockworks that encompass both engineering and philosophy. This is not a compendium of fantastical tales, but a scholarly deep dive into medieval automata, realized and literary, with a scope that embraces the long history of the automaton. Truitt investigates some of the most interesting questions about the human drive to create automata, for, as she notes in the introduction, automata “are mimetic objects that dramatize the structure of the cosmos and humankind’s role in it.” This was the first book on automata I read, and the questions and curiosity it instilled in me jumpstarted my own book project and sent me on a wonderful journey of further reading. If there is one book that everyone should read about early automata, Truitt’s book is it. My guess is that some of you, like me, won’t stop there.
Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robot)
If you thought that the narrative of robots taking over the workforce, and then the world, was a pure Hollywood invention, think again. Factory-working rebel robots debut on the 20th-century stage in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which established our contemporary use of the word robot: robota, in Czech, means forced labor, and the root of the word “rab” means “slave.” Čapek’s robots are not clunky metallic giants, but biological androids forced to labor until they revolt, just as the human birth rate plummets to zero. The play includes a do-gooder from the Humanity League who wants to fight for the robots, and her doppelganger android who just may save the robot race. But what about the humans? At times very funny, at times unsettling from our vantage point a century later, R.U.R. is unnervingly prescient as we look at advancements in AI and wonder what our own future relationship with robots might be.
Charles Dickens, Mudfog and Other Sketches
(Bottom of the Hill Publishing)
Wondering where you can find a satirical foray into a robotic criminal justice system? Check out Mudfog and Other Sketches, a collection of some of Dickens’ contributions to Bentley’s Miscellany. The sketches center around The Mudfog Society for the Advancement of Everything, a parody of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The proposed automaton police force is to be created able to convincingly “utter diverse groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy” when beaten by a group of men, in order to satisfy the men, while “the great advantage would be, that a policeman’s limbs might be all knocked off, and yet he would be in a condition to do duty next day.” Meanwhile, automaton magistrates would be programmed with various responses, including apologizing and accusing the police of being intoxicated. While automata appear in a small section titled “SECTION B.—Display of Models and Mechanical Science,” in the hilariously formatted bureaucratic “Full Report” for the society, readers may also get a kick out of another part of the papers, a send-up of literary celebrity titled, “Some Particulars Concerning a Lion.”
Max Byrd, The Paris Deadline
Everyone I told about my interest in automata seemed to have a book or film recommendation, and this next one was an outlier, as a work of historical fiction and a discovery by my father, who is writing a novel that takes place in Paris after World War I. In Byrd’s novel, a World War I veteran serving as an American journalist in Paris in the 1920s ends up with an antique mechanical duck by accident. But is it the mechanical duck, Vaucanson’s famous “digesting duck,” mentioned above? Vaucanson duck’s tricks are not the central mystery, but Byrd allows you to learn, alongside protagonist Tony Keats, some automata history, provided in the context of enough Parisian street scenes and parties to satisfy your pandemic-driven wanderlust. Keats gets wrapped up with Elsie Short, an employee at the American factory making those Thomas Edison talking dolls. A guy, a girl, a murder, a toymaker villain, and a mechanical duck: what more could you ask for in an automaton mystery of sorts? If you want to learn a little bit about automata and Vaucanson, but like your history light and couched in a plot, this offers a curiosity-inducing introduction to the world of French automata.
L. Frank Baum, Ozma of Oz
Before TikTok was a social media app, Tiktok (sometimes Tik-Tok) was a rotund clockwork automaton character in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series. While your first thought of robots in Oz might be the Tin Man, he is actually a cyborg, as clarified by Dorothy after she meets Tiktok: “[The Tin Man] was as alive as we are, ’cause he was born a real man, and got his tin body a little at a time….” Tiktok debuts in Ozma of Oz, the third book in the series, in which Dorothy opens a rock chamber to discover a round copper “man—or, at least, it seemed like a man,” who wears a manufacturer’s card around his neck that note that he “Thinks, Speaks, Acts, and Does Everything but Live.” The card includes instructions for how to wind him up at separate spots numbered for thinking, speaking, and “walking and action.” Once wound up, Tiktok speaks in halting dialogue to Dorothy and her hen friend, Billina. Baum’s dialogue tags express Tiktok’s liminal identity between man and machine, for besides being attributed by name, Tiktok is also “the copperman,” “the clock-work voice,” and “the machine.” Ozma of Oz and the other 13 books in the original series lived on my bookshelf as a child, and I returned to them again and again. They were a magical portal to a world where a hen, a girl, and a clockwork automaton could chat and have adventures. Little did I know at the time that Tiktok would only be the first of many clockwork automata I would encounter, or that I would write my own books one day.
Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank is available now via Carnegie-Mellon University Press.