On the Literature of Cyborgs, Robots, and Other Automata
From Mechanical Ducks to Mythic Metal Giants
Automata prefigured not just artificial intelligence, but the public’s terrors of it. Pop culture cyborgs, from Metropolis to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Transcendence, share a common ancestor in Vaucanson’s Duck and the chess-playing Mechanical Turk. Cybernetic awareness and the freakouts about cloning are echoes of the public’s reactions to the earliest androids.
Initially, automata were designed as frivolous objects: clockwork tableaux, begemmed tigers and swans, a prototype of the contemporary condiment spinner, dancing metal ladies. But designing these trinkets led to a flood techno-industrial breakthroughs for the savviest court mechanicians, whose tinkering would lead to the Jacquard loom and advances in hydraulics. Ultimately, automaton-making was the underground laboratory of the Industrial Revolution. Concomitant with its scientific purposes, the pursuit of complicated toys during the Enlightenment laid bare the frightening symmetries between man and machine. Newton postulated a cosmos run in clockwork fashion by a disinterested god; Descartes (an automata hobbyist) equated this with the animal kingdom, calling it the “beast-machine hypothesis.” It didn’t take long for another heretic, the philosopher La Mettrie, in l’Homme Machine (1747) to claim that man himself was a “living representation of perpetual motion”—a higher genus of automaton.
Inventions in the field ran parallel with a horror of replicating human beings. Alchemists, aristocrats and scientists contracted a fever for early robotics. Celebrated geometer and inventor of the first industrial crane and catapult, Archytas designed a steam-powered pigeon. During the medieval era, Albertus Magnus built a Chatty Cathy-like figure whose incessant talking so infuriated Thomas Aquinas that the theologian smashed the chatterer to bits. Johann Muller crafted an iron fly; Bishop Virgilius came up with a brass one. In the latter part of the 1400s Leonardo Da Vinci unveiled sketches for a mechanical suit of armor. Roger Bacon and his associate Thomas Bungy were accused of cavorting with the devil, who’d supposedly taught them how to make “a brazen head” capable of dispensing prophecies.
A mania for mechanical life proliferated in the 18th and 19th centuries, with a steady stream of more and more intricate machines. Jacques de Vaucanson, “the new Prometheus” according to Voltaire, introduced a clockwork flautist that charmed Paris in 1737, then outdid himself two years later with a dazzling Mechanical Duck that could waddle, eat and digest. What had begun as playthings for the posh, automata became for later mechanicians a way to mimic, perhaps even to decode, human nature in a programmable form. In the 1750s Vaucanson attempted, with the support of Louis XV and the famous surgeon Le Cat, to build a fully rubberized man. Their secret project was unsuccessful, though, with Vaucanson remarking only it had “disgusted” him. Vaucanson’s humanoid designs were followed by harpsichord players, a portraitist named Zoe, androids bearing the features of their makers, a fortune-teller called Psycho, and Euphonia, a disembodied woman’s head that, with the aid of a bellows, could talk in a human voice. The demarcation between man and inanimacy, once unbridgeable and theologically off-limits, was slowly being eroded by ever more humanlike machines.
An automaton symbolizes the creepy resemblance between us and the clockwork mechanisms we’ve invented. The works below, written well before our digitized culture, were some of the first to peer around the corner of the future, and to explore the awe and apprehension of mechanical existence.
Talos from Jason and the Argonauts (3rd C. B.C.E.) by Apollonius of Rhodes
Inanimate beings brought into existence recur throughout various mythologies. Sculpted images coming to life, or venus statuaria show up in some of the best-known myths, like the story of Pygmalion and Galatea. But the first mention of a bonafide robot comes from Hellenistic sources. Talos, a giant forged from bronze by Hephaestus, the god of technology, was made for the purpose of protecting Crete from oceangoing marauders. A vein ran the length of Talos’s massive body; a peg in his foot kept ichor, his lifeblood, from oozing out. He never slept and made a circuit around the island thrice daily with divine tablets to keep the peace among Cretans.
Much of what we know about Talos comes from the Argonautica. After Jason and his crew have secured the Golden Fleece, they’re besieged by the boulder-hurling colossus. Medea “bewitches the eyes of Talos” that causes him to go mad and to loosen his ankle-peg on a rock, and “the ichor ran out of him like molten lead.”
When faced with an opponent Talos was known to engulf himself in fire and embrace his enemies to ash, laughing the whole while. The poet Simonides traces the phrase “sardonic laughter” to Talos’s sinister habit during a run-in with Sardinian pirates. Just as later automata came to be associated with the pinnacle of scientific achievement, Talos incarnates metalworking, the era’s technological height. Probably the most indelible image we have of Talos is that of Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion giant in the 1963 film version. While the Argonautica mentions Talos as approximately eight-feet tall, the movie portrays him, with mysterious fluctuations throughout his scenes, as taller than Crete’s mountains. Talos has some affinities with the Golem of Jewish mysticism; instead of being cast out of metal, though, the latter was animated by a certain dance and chanting.
“The Sandman” (1816-1817) by E.T.A Hoffmann
Before there were pulp cyborgs and shows like Black Mirror to point out the anti-human aspects of technology, there was E.T.A. Hoffmann. A composer and writer of bizarre tales, Hoffmann and his Romantic cohorts railed against the mechanical usurpation of art. Vaucansons’s flute-player had given Hoffmann a taste of just how far automation could go in a full-on bastardization of human feeling and beauty.
Referring to a folkloric “wicked man” who takes children’s eyes away and “carries them to the crescent moon” to feed his kids, the Sandman is terrifying. In a series of letters the hero of Hoffmann’s short story, Nathaniel, reveals the recurring, diabolical figure of Coppelius. As a child Nathaniel caught Coppelius and Nathaniel’s father molding human visages from fiery material, and the man has continued to haunt him. After a few more run-ins with Coppelius, who’s reinvented himself as Coppola and now sells optical instruments, Nathaniel’s revenge is forestalled when his professor, Spellanzani, attests to Coppola’s credibility.
Nathaniel falls for Spellazani’s daughter, Olimpia, a monosyllabic girl. Later, he visits with a notion to propose marriage, forgetting his own affianced, and finds instead a scene of profound derangement: Coppola and Spellanzani fighting over the girl’s disassembled, clockwork anatomy. In the end, seeing a resemblance between his former fiancee and the fembot through a looking-glass, he tries tossing her off a tower, but is tossed off himself by her brother, all the while being watched by Coppelius/Coppola/Sandman from the ruck below.
In his 1919 essay on the subject Sigmund Freud singles out “The Sandman” as literature’s greatest expression of the uncanny, or “intellectual uncertainty.” The familiar becoming weird is a staple of Hoffmann’s work, and the pursuit of a man-machine hybrid was to him a supremely estranging concept that he’d already explored in another tale, “Automata,” in 1814. Superstition and myth produced some very unattractive monsters; the new Olympus, on the other hand, was populated by men pursuing chilling imitations of humanity.
Trends in transhumanism—the drive to digitize man and curtail the Singularity (machines building ever power powerful machines without human engineering)—bear out Hoffmann’s technophobic stance. In “The Sandman” automata are a bad prophetic dream emerging, as Freud might say, from Nathaniel’s and the world’s childhood horrors.
“Maelzel’s Chess-Player” (1836) by Edgar Allan Poe
Wolfgang Von’s Kempelen’s chess-playing automaton, impassively turbaned, with a pipe and garment lined with ermine, was something of a celebrity. Introduced at the court of Maria Theresa in Vienna, the Mechanical Turk dazzled much of Europe with its chess-playing prowess. In 1804 Johan Nepomuk Maelzel, the P.T. Barnum of Austria and inventor of the metronome, took over the Turk. Together with its halting movements and impassive wooden face, The Turk’s powers instilled apprehension. Some believed a demon had possessed the chess-player. People are said to have crossed themselves when entering its presence, and women swooned before it. The truly alarming thing to Enlightenment era audiences was the Turk’s interactivity: if a bunch of gears could be preprogrammed with such astounding logic, what did that say about reasoning, free will, the soul and human beings themselves?
Conjectures about the Turk’s innerworkings had an air of mild hysteria from the beginning. Outlandish explanations—pocketed magnets, spirits, hidden tripwires—were soon replaced with Philip Thicknesse’s 1784 “man within a man” hypothesis. Robert Willis surreptitiously measured the contraption with his umbrella and verified that a person could be lodged within. Later, the magician Robert-Houdin claimed that he’d been privy to the Turk’s secret all along: a legless Polish soldier who’d used the facade to escape Russia. Devised by Von Kempelen and showmanized by Maelzel, the Turk was the Rosetta Stone of automata.
Edgar Allan Poe was so impressed with the Turk that he was compelled to all but inaugurate the modern detective genre to explain it. Turk-mania was imported to America in the mid-1830s, and Poe was a part of its Richmond premier in 1836. Unnerved by the Turk’s chess-playing ingenuity, he immediately set about investigating Maelzel’s legerdemain. “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” is a forensic glimpse into the mind of an android.
Poe was right to envision a man working the Turk from within, even if a few of his claims seem wacky, as when he says, for instance that a machine programmed to excel would “beat any possible game of an antagonist.” Most astute was Poe’s pointing out the chess-player’s “stiff, awkward, jerking, and rectangular manner”. Previous automata were characterized by an almost creepy fluidity of movement; the Turk, in contrast, was grating and clanky. This noise, along with Maelzel’s frequent need to wind-up the gears was a masterfully deflecting touch: only a person would feign such obviously machinelike affectations. Or, as Poe says, “The Chess-Player plays precisely as a man would not.”
And in truth, the Turk was a false-automaton, maneuvered from inside by a series of chessmasters with an intricate system of levers, candles and a miniature chessboard. It was a clever meta-con: the mechanical reproduction of man by a person pretending to be a machine. Still, even with its fraudulence determined, it continued to disturb. When it was perishing in a warehouse conflagration, a bystander swore the Turk had screamed to be saved. Unfortunately, after wowing much of the world and introducing the feasibility of AI, its cries went unheeded.
The Steam Powered Man of the Prairies (1868) by Edward S. Ellis and
Frank Reade and the Steam Man of the Plains (1876) Harry Enton
Called “Edisonades” for their lionization of the inventor’s mechanical gadgetry, these boys’ serializations were ridiculously popular between the 1860s and the start of the 20th century. Ellis’s concerns a young inventor modeled on Edison, named Johnny Brainerd, who concocts a carriage-pulling robot for his adventures across the country. An actual steam-powered figure, yoked to a cart, was designed just prior to the novel’s appearance.
The success of Ellis’s inspired Enton and his Frank Reade series, along with a trove of dime-store knockoffs. Balloons and submarines would soon replace carriages as the prefered mode of automated transportation. In later works, Steam Powered Man was updated to became Electric Man.
l’Eve future (1886) by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam
Thomas Alva Edison is likewise the hero of de l’Isle Adam’s 1886 novel about androids, translated as Tomorrow’s Eve. The Wizard of Menlo Park was like some Gilded Age sorcerer, turning developments in automata theory into an assembly-line empire. (His Talking Doll, released in 1890, would combine the inanimate with the phonographic to produce something truly disturbing.)
In de l’Isle-Adam’s book a fictional friend of Edison’s, Lord Ewald, complains about his insipid fiancee, Alicia. The inventor, along with his trusty “mystical assistant,” creates an improved version of the girl, naming her Hadaly. Alicia’s supernatural essence is uploaded into this new Eve and Lord Ewald is none the wiser. Although borrowing the central horror-com plotline of “The Sandman,” l’Eve future sees a scientific awakening where Hoffmann saw the tools for dissolution and scientism’s hubris. Hadaly eventually confides to Lord Ewald that she’s an gynoid; the assignation ends when she’s lost at sea.
Besides being a work of outrageous misogyny, l’Eve future has been hailed for its Symbolist and Decadent bent, influenced as much by Baudelaire as by Edgar Allan Poe. Another in the somewhat wonky tradition of the “Edisonade” it brought the term “android” into common parlance.
“The Dancing Partner” (1893) by Jerome K. Jerome
Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat (arguably the funniest book ever) tried his hand with literary androids in the short story “The Dancing Partner.” In it, a girl rails to her father that there aren’t enough proficient dancers in their neck of the Black Forest. Thankfully, the man is a mechanical toy maker. He pieces together an automaton as her escort to a ball, and straps the metal man onto her. What results from their waltzing is actually quite grisly, as the machine is sped up and other partygoers find it impossible to detach the mechanical man from her.
Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz and others (1907) by L. Frank Baum
Baum’s android Tik-Tik is a rotund metal individual who must be wound up or he freezes and goes mute. He debuts in Ozma of Oz, where Dorothy discovers him in a cave. He’s without any sort of emotion, and becomes her “slave” and bodyguard. Named for the sounds of his clockwork innards, Tik-Tok reappears in later Oz installments and has a cameo in Wicked as the far more nuanced Grommetik.
“Moxon’s Master” (1909) Ambrose Bierce
Automata were the gateway devices for a collective wariness of technology. As evidenced by the Turk, chess would eventually be linked with better and better software, to purely binary logic, and it was only a short hop from there to fathom a techverse where that same logic could suddenly turn sinister. Ambrose Bierce was one of the first to make this skepticism explicit.
Journalist, Civil War veteran, ultra-cynic and author of the Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce was an iconoclastic nihilist who disappeared in 1914 while traveling to Mexico to cover the revolution there. “Moxon’s Master,” published in the 1909 speculative fiction collection Can Such Things Be? is his sarcastic take on chess-playing androids.
“Do you know,” Moxon asks at the outset, “That Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm?” Reiterating La Mettrie’s conclusion that man is a mechanism, one that only “thinks it thinks,” Moxon expounds on his theories of AI. Later the narrator exits in frustration, only to return and find Moxon being strangled by the mechanical chess-player he’s just checkmated, a victim of his own innovation.
“Moxon’s Master” is a fantastical version of Maelzel’s Turk, revealing the parallel tracks of invention and destruction that have always been programmed into our machines. As though setting out to manifest the uneasy relationship Bierce showed between man and computer, Amazon.com unveiled its own Mechanical Turk in 2005. The purpose of this Turk was to gather individuals for HITS (Human Intelligence Tasks) that a computer was unable to perform, such as cropping photos. Finally, at least in this instance, man has come to be subservient to one of his own machines. Moxon and his master indeed.