Interesting but uneven
. Author Gaby Wood is a writer for the Observer
and “attended” Cambridge; it’s not clear what she specializes in. She seems very good at historical research. The book divides into three parts, and their relationship isn’t all that clear.
The first section discusses mechanical “automatons” from the 18th and 19th centuries: Jaques de Vaucanson’s mechanical flute player and mechanical duck from the early 18th century, and Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk chess player from the later part. The Mechanical Turk eventually became associated with Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who inherited the machine after von Kempelen’s death and who took it on a number of international exhibitions. Wood has done a lot of investigation trying to track down the whereabouts and function of the devices. The flute player seems to have disappeared about 1810; there are tentative traces of the duck until 1879 when it was supposedly destroyed in a fire. The Turk was also destroyed in a fire, in Philadelphia in 1854; fire seems to have been the general nemesis of automatons. ((A bellows arrangement allowed the Turk to say “échec
” (check); witnesses claimed it kept uttering this as it burned). Wood segues from the Turk’s career to the mental state of chess players in general; this doesn’t work very well.
The next section is about the title topic, Thomas Edison and his real and imaginary dolls. In the 1890s, Edison briefly marketed a talking doll, which incorporated a small cylinder phonograph and could recite various short poems and songs. The doll was not a success; it was expensive and heavy. At about the same time, a French novelist, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, published The Eve of the Future
, in which Edison is fictionalized as a sort of magician, who at the request of a friend builds a life-size mechanical doll in the image of the man’s love interest. It should be noted that since the date of the novel was 1886 the anatomical details and functions of the doll aren’t described in any detail, but since it’s a French novel its lingerie is (it has “deliciously fine ladies stockings” … “perfumed gloves” … and “a lightweight and ravishing corset with bright red ribbons”). The doll is eventually lost in fire on board the ship taking it to England; fire seems to be the nemesis of automatons, even fictional ones. It’s not sure if Edison ever read de l’Isle-Adam’s book, but he did donate $25 toward a statue of the writer after his death.
The last parts of the book, although interesting, don’t relate to the first chapters very well. Wood discusses the film career of Georges Méliès. There is a slight connection; Méliès career was made possible by Edison’s invention of the Kinetoscope, and it was eventually ruined when Edison began enforcing his patents on movie-making (the problem was patent licensees were required to produce a certain amount of film every week and Méliès couldn’t afford that much production). Méliès was famous for surreal and science-fiction films, with stop-motion and various other special effects; the most famous is A Trip to the Moon
from 1902. Many of Méliès actors and actresses were hired from the Follies Bergere, which explains the number of pulchritudinous young ladies and male acrobats in the films. Wood relates Méliès to her main theme of automatons by arguing that automatons appear to be human but aren’t and the things in Méliès films appear to happening but aren’t. A lot of his films were though lost but have recently been found and restored; they make for a fun evening on YouTube.
Wood then goes from Méliès films to the history of the Doll family. The Dolls (originally the Schnieders) , were a group of sibling midgets who spent years in the circus and who acted in a number of Hollywood films (Harry and Daisy Doll were the leads in Tom Browning’s Freaks
, and Harry was one of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz
). Wood manages to track down the last Doll, Tiny (she was, of course, the tallest) in a house trailer in Sarasota, Florida (Wood doesn’t know Tiny’s still alive but just wants to visit the Doll’s last home). The Dolls are related only tenuously to Wood’s main theme; her claim is many people thought the Dolls weren’t real but some sort of mechanical doll, thus the book loops from automatons people thought were living to live midgets people thought were automatons.
When Wood is doing straight history, she’s very good and quite readable. She falls off when she starts to philosophize about reality versus illusion. With the rise of AI, there’s certainly plenty to think about there but Wood tends to sensationalize and doesn’t get very deep into the subject. A good editor might have helped here by keeping Wood on focus.
Pictures of the various automata, movie stills, and midgets. No notes, but a pretty extensive bibliography; I want to explore some of Wood’s sources more thoroughly.