A Toy Story

In this age of automation and simulacra, we take it for granted that dolls cry and pee and beg to be fed, that Disneyfied animatronic bears usher us through amusement parks. For years, writers such as Paul Virilio, Sadie Plant, and Donna Haraway wove dizzying theories about the effects of technology on humans; Mark Dery once suggested that in an information-based culture, the body may wilt like "a vestigial appendage no longer needed by late-twentieth-century Homo sapiens." Edison's Eve takes a more quaint approach to the subject, guiding us on an oddball tour of early attempts to meld man and machine. Unlike the posthumanist discourse crew, Gaby Wood writes as if Theory never happened.

Instead, Wood gravitates toward historical curiosities (her previous book was a slim history called The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness), trawling vast oceans of research to focus on those men—and it's always men—who dreamed of animating the inanimate: from Hero in 150 B.C., who created a proto-android controlled by cogs and pulleys, to Thomas Edison, who obsessed over his talking doll, which he boldly named Eve.

Looking beyond the contemporary emphasis on genetic determinism and DNA mapping to the places where science meets magic and mischief, Wood emphasizes the mercurial and sometimes creepy impulses that motivated these inventors. Descartes—the philosopher who laid the foundation for the notion of man as a living machine—was rumored to have built a replica of his dead daughter Francine. And Jacques de Vaucanson—whose defecating robo-duck thrilled crowds in the 18th century—was plagued by an anal fistula that interfered with digestion, adding a poignancy to the intricate details of his creation's perfect poop; this shitting duck was both an "imaginary prosthesis" and "a reminder that civilization could not be separated from its waste."

Gaby Wood plays the brainy bloodhound sniffing each doll maker’s mystery.
photo: Hugo Glendinning
Gaby Wood plays the brainy bloodhound sniffing each doll maker’s mystery.

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Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life
By Gaby Wood
Knopf, 304 pp., $24
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Edison's Eve sets up each doll maker as the hero in an eerie historical mystery, with Wood playing the brainy bloodhound, doggedly sniffing down every last tangent. Often the research yields arcane gems, as in the case of Wolfgang von Kempelen's 1769 Automaton Chess Player, a robot in the shape of a turbaned "Turk" who won every game. The book rummages through the rumors and theories that circulated over the years: Was it a robot imbued with a living soul, a demonic presence, or a hoax? Wood not only unearths the secret—the man-machine was actually powered by a chess whiz crouching in the bowels of the statue—but even speculates on men like Jacques-François Mouret, who spent huge chunks of his life inside the Turk, providing its pre-Microsoft "artificial intelligence." He died drunk and miserable, leading Wood to conclude that Mouret was "the victim of an experiment whose object was to ascertain what was the most essential human faculty. What does a machine need in order to be human? And can a human reduce himself to that faculty alone? The more Mouret played, the more uncomfortable he was; his physical self was a thing to be overcome. . . . Enlisted by the puppet—used—Mouret became, after a while, useless." Wood returns to this issue with irritating frequency: What sets us apart from machines, and why does that blurry borderline make us so uneasy? But rather than answering this question, the book merely provides 101 examples of the anxiety robots have provoked through the ages.

On the other hand, Edison's Eve does a wonderful job of skittering through history, weaving connections between eras, and plotting forgotten landmarks on a map that exists only in Wood's head. She dedicates a chapter to Georges Méliès's metamorphosis from automaton aficionado and magician to filmmaker. Méliès pioneered a kind of enchanted cinema, visually conjuring tales of dolls coming to life, people appearing out of thin air, inanimate objects transforming into women. "Méliès transferred the quest of earlier android-makers to a new virtual reality. He made the human body do impossible things, and proved how mechanical or puppet-like our celluloid selves could be," Wood writes.

The book follows Méliès's life to the bitter end. Broke and humiliated, he was reduced to managing a toy stall at Montparnasse Station. In fact, most of the tales in Edison's Eve come to shabby endings—even the book's title story, that of Thomas Edison and his talking doll. After his invention of the lightbulb and the phonograph, Edison focused his attention on creating the perfect facsimile of a child, searching the world for the ideal eyes and hair, and constructing a factory capable of assembling 100,000 Eves a year. Wood details the industrial components used to create the illusion of delicate fawnish creatures and lingers over the bizarre image of little girls "spewing forth from Edison's factory, as if they were lamps or clocks." Proposing that Edison's doll obsession was an expression of his desire to create a perfect woman, Wood offers scant but amusing evidence: a creepy diary entry in which Edison writes, "Saw a woman get into a car that was so tall and frightfully thin as well as dried up that my mechanical mind at once conceived the idea that it would be the proper thing to run a lancet into her arm and knee joints and insert automatic self-feeding oil cups to diminish creaking when she walked." Edison failed to create his dream female in any form—the figurine was too heavy and its speech box too fragile. So he shuttered his doll factory, leaving Wood to wonder plangently what happened to the thousands of dolls, "victims, we may presume, of their own imperfection."

Edison's Eve resembles a ramshackle cabinet of curiosities, full of miscellaneous bits and pieces sticking out all over. The chapter on the Doll Family (four dwarf siblings who starred in the Ringling Bros. Circus) is awkwardly shoehorned into Wood's "man or machine" theme. Even more bizarrely, the book glosses over today's cutting-edge humanoid robotics technology, with brief drive-by mentions in the intro and epilogue. Wood's lucid prose and storytelling ability carry the book, but her subject matter seems disparate and undigested, as if she never really got around to molding her research into fully fledged ideas. The book barely touches on the fantasy relationship between children and dolls and doesn't consider how the historical fascination with automatons translates in our post-Furby world.

Wood's refusal to engage with contemporary cybertheory—even if only to tussle with writers like Haraway or Plant, who tread similar ground—makes Edison's Eve seem like a nostalgic venture through the marvelous but dusty archives. A victim, we may presume, of the author's very human imperfection.

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