From the Wilson Quarterly:
A peculiar experiment inspired by the Enlightenment sheds light on the age-old question of what makes us human.
Once or twice a year France's National Museum of Technology, on the nondescript rue Vaucanson in Paris, announces a special demonstration. On the second floor, at the end of a corridor of antique steam engines and jacquard looms, the museum’s Theater of Automates swings open its doors. At the bottom of a small, dark auditorium, the Keeper of Automates takes a few of his oldest, most fragile exhibits from their locked glass cases.
White gloved, wearing a lab technician’s spotless coat, he places the items gently on a table. A capacity crowd of perhaps 80 people, nine-tenths of them (it seems) screaming children, leans forward as he spreads out his gaily painted mechanical toys—automates—and under a single focused light winds them up, one by one.
The climax of the demonstrations is always the same. After the clown who tips his hat and rolls a ball, after the tin rooster that hops and crows, after a half-dozen such wood and metal creatures strut across the table and perform their stunts, the Keeper’s ghostly hands reverently lift into the light a doll seated before a miniature dulcimer.
The doll is about 18 inches high. She wears a beautiful golden silk gown. Her hair is also golden, her eyes sky blue. She was created in 1784, just before the Revolution, by a German clockmaker named Peter Kintzing and a French cabinetmaker named David Roentgen, and one year later she was presented as a gift to Marie Antoinette.
The Keeper’s fingers turn a key, and the doll begins to strike the dulcimer’s strings with two tiny hammers she holds in her long, delicate hands. This is not a music box, you understand; there is no rotating drum in sight, no clockwork brass teeth. Virtually all automates are powered by some kind of wind-up engine. In this case, a spring motor hidden under the stool sets in motion an astonishingly complicated system of cams and levers, so that the dulcimer player’s hands actually raise and lower the hammers and visibly tap the individual strings of the instrument. The doll periodically turns her head to regard, with a smile, her audience. Her chest seems to rise and fall. She actually plays her music, her admirers sigh, just like a real person.
But there are always a few who watch her performance not with admiration but with panicky unease. Once in a while, seized perhaps by the same spooky feeling that made early audiences flee movie theaters, someone will jump abruptly to his feet and hurry out. Such a person, I have had it explained to me, is probably experiencing what Freud called the feeling of the “Uncanny”—the terrifying sensation that arises when something cold and inanimate starts, mysteriously, to move and stir before us—when, say, a doll comes to life.
Automates of various kinds have been around since antiquity, as toys or curiosities. But in the middle of the 19th century, in one of the odder artistic enthusiasms the French are famously prone to, a positive mania for automates like the dulcimer player swept the country. People flocked to see them in galleries, museums, touring exhibitions. Watchmakers and craftsmen competed to make more and still more impossibly complex clockwork figures, animals and dolls that would dance, caper, perform simple household tasks—in one case, even write a line or two with pen and ink. The magician Robert Houdin built them for his act. Philosophers and journalists applauded them as symbols of the mechanical genius of the age. Like so many such fads, however, the Golden Age of Automates lasted only a short time. By about 1890 it had yielded the stage to even newer technologies: Edison’s phonograph and the Lumière brothers’ amazing cinematograph.
Yet as every novelist knows, a story always starts earlier than we think...MORE.