Edison's Eve: A History of the Quest for Mechanical Life
By Gaby Wood
Alfred A. Knopf
By John Glassie
(Forbes FYI, September 2002)
Our fear of human cloning and uppity, thinking computers may seem unique to our age, but this book shows that people have been trying to create artificial life, or play God, for a long time. Archytas of Tarentum, a contemporary of Plato, is said to have built a flying wooden pigeon, and Hero of Alexandria created a simulated human that, thanks to a special neck mechanism, defied all attempts at decapitation.
Things really got busy in the Age of Reason, when science began to suggest that men were machines (with souls). In the 1730s, Jacques de Vaucanson built an elaborate flute-playing automaton that actually "breathed" air and delighted Parisian audiences with 12 different melodies. (Diderot saw the show and coined the term "androïde.") He soon topped himself with a mechanical duck that "ate food out of the exhibitor's hand, swallowed it, digested it and excreted it" before the likes of Louis XV and Voltaire.
The Hungarian Wolfgang von Kempelen subsequently created a mechanical chess player that toured internationally over many decades, taking on Napoleon (who lost), Catherine the Great (who was disqualified for cheating) and Benjamin Franklin (outcome undocumented). This baffling wooden "Turk" rolled his eyes and moved game pieces with an ingeniously engineered arm. It (he) made ladies faint, whipped up widespread philosophical debate about the nature of intelligence and stirred Edgar Allan Poe into writing an exposè in which he asserted, rightly, that a human being had to be inside.
The area between science and spectacle, experiment and amusement, has historically been rather gray. There's even evidence that Thomas Edison developed the phonograph as a component for a talking doll he wanted to mass-produce. He did in fact create a metal doll with a tiny phonograph inside, the Eve of this book's title, but it was a huge commercial flop. (Recording technology, on the other hand, has done pretty well.)
Simulations of life have always been creepy, if not downright frightening, even when meant to entertain. One day in 1895, in Paris, the first paying audience sat down to experience the Cinematograph. When the moving image of a train came rushing toward them, they ran right out of the theater.
In the end, the author says, each of these inventions has been "a riddle, a fundamental challenge to our perception of what makes us human." And there are more of them on the way.