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EDISON’S EVE by Gaby Wood


A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life

by Gaby Wood

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 2002
ISBN: 0-679-45112-9
Publisher: Knopf

British journalist Wood profiles roboticists with castration complexes and other men, both real and fictional, who thought they might somehow be able to create life.

From Icarus to Dr. Frankenstein and beyond, these inventors display a mechanical ingenuity that appeals to the author almost as much as the Freudian aura of all their endeavors. Despite the title, Wood’s favorite seems to be Jacques de Vaucanson, a French designer who crafted bizarre automata in the mid-18th century. His moving musicians on pedestals were the toast of Europe (one flutist had a 12-song repertoire), but his crowning achievement was a quacking, waddling, clockwork duck that could gobble up bits of food and, after an appropriate interval, defecate. By the time it was revealed that possibly green-dyed breadcrumbs were stored within the duck for effective release, Vaucanson had moved on to revolutionize French silk manufacture. Mechanical humanoids that could write poetry, play chess, tell fortunes, etc., may not have much in common with today’s software-driven laboratory robots, but Wood finds the sentiments of compulsion and fascination (“They register emotions but do they realize what emotions they’re registering?”) to be a constant passed from tinkerer to cyberneticist. She has her way with Thomas Edison, finding the Wizard of Menlo Park to be an opportunistic misogynist who stuffed his newly minted phonograph into the body of a “talking doll” that sold for $10, about a week’s wages for a factory worker. In the same vein, she introduces an obscure French novel whose Edison-like protagonist creates the perfect woman for a love-crazed client, annotating it with quotations from the real Thomas A. to buttress her contention that he looked at a woman and saw a product that could be improved.

A rigorously researched, clever, and obliquely feminist look at what happens over the ages when the Pygmalion complex is closeted in a well-equipped workshop.