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Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life Paperback – 17 Mar 2003

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; New Ed edition (17 Mar. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571214665
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571214662
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 2.2 x 20 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,005,161 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Gaby Woods' Living Dolls is a playful exploration of the history of artificial creatures and their inventors, which starts in 17th-century France and ends in the robotics laboratories of Tokyo and Massachusetts. Ultimately the book is concerned to provide a Freudian account of "what troubles us when we are faced with certain versions of ourselves--bionic men, speaking robots, intelligent machines or even just a doll that moves". The dolls, robots and androids that Woods explores all create anxieties that offer "a fundamental challenge to our perception of what makes us human".

Woods' fascination with artificial intelligence begins in the 17th century, with Descartes' formulation of man as a machine, and Jacques de Vaucanson's flute-playing android, accompanied by an artificial duck that digested its own food, first exhibited to popular amazement in Paris in 1738. The book then tells the bizarre stories of other examples of artificial bodies, including Wolfgang von Kempelen's Automaton Chess Player, attired in the manner of a Turk, Edison's Talking Doll and John Nevill Maskelyne's 19th-century automaton, Psycho. Living Dolls is an amusing and well written story of the "uncanny" nature of artificial life, although some readers might feel that it is higher on entertainment than serious philosophical reflection, in dealing with a subject that many postmodern scholars have explored in greater depth. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


A haunting account of the wilder fringes of mechanical ingenuity and human self-absorption. -- Evening Standard, 25 February 2002

A masterly, elegant and thoughtful cultural history of the life-imitating machine. -- Sunday Times, 24 February 2002

A rigorously researched and grippingly narrated weaving of tales of the quest for mechanical life. . . A captivating read. -- Financial Times, 23 February 2002

A splendid history of mechanical magic which kept me enthralled with its original research and marvellous story-telling quality. -- Roy Porter

Wood seems peculiarly sensitive to the fantastic flirtatiousness which envelops dolls, miniature machines, seemingly living constructs. -- Observer, 24 February 2002 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 16 April 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderfully eloquent series of stories around the whole idea of artificial life - or rather I should say 'mechanical' life, as what most interests Wood is the weird and uncanny things that happen when robots or androids take on the appearance of humankind. There are great tales of mad inventors and their brilliant inventions, like the 18th century excreting duck or Edison's doomed attempt to construct a talking doll, and there's a fascinating interview with one of the Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz. The connections made are both persuasive and unexpected, so for example the link with the early days of the cinema came as a pleasing surprise to me. It's the kind of book that helps explain our obsessions of the present moment (Japan, Blade Runner, Terminator), and at the same time makes the past seem stranger than one has ever imagined. I'd adored Gaby Wood's last book, THE SMALLEST OF ALL PERSONS MENTIONED IN THE RECORDS OF LITTLENESS, but it seems to me that this is even more suggestive, and even more beautifully crafted. I'm not surprised that the press reviews have been so positive.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Mr. Paul J. Bradshaw on 22 May 2003
Format: Paperback
Ostensibly about automata, Living Dolls tells a number of fascinating stories about mechanical ducks, chess-playing Turks and flute-playing statues. But as the book goes on, the focus shifts to more tenuously linked stories.
The stuff about Vaucanson is excellent, making some excellent points about how the search for machine-men turned men into machines. The second chapter is a little less interesting, as the chess-playing Turk turns out to be something of a fraud. And from then onwards it's downhill. Edison's dolls (chap3), for instance, were never intended to 'imitate life' in the same way as automata; and people on film (chap4) are not 'robots repeating the same action'; finally, the Doll Family (chap5) were human - the link to robots is non-existent.
That said, these are great stories. Just don't approach this book expecting more than one chapter on its stated subject, or you'll end up disappointed.
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11 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 15 Mar. 2002
Format: Hardcover
After reading some good reviews of this title in the London newspapers, I bought a copy with high expectations. The initial impression was positive, as the book is nicely produced and attractively priced. Some of the stories, like that of the mechanical duck, are amusing although somewhat shopworn, and Wood adds very little to them. In fact, the research is so shallow and derivative, and the writing so turgid and 'wooden', that it is hard to believe the author is a professional writer. As for the silly generalizations about 18th century automata and modern cybertechnology, they seem better suited to a school project. Avoid at all costs.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 5 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating, but dry 7 Jan. 2011
By R. Newnham - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I picked up this book as research for a project I'm working on, and it is pretty fascinating. How far back the creation of life-approximating automata goes is very interesting. The writing is pretty dry, however, and this is my only real criticism of the book. Wood goes pretty deep into what I would consider minutiae, and, while I can see that this would be useful for some scholars, I found it to be a bit much. Still, the subject matter is great and I would be hard-pressed to find another book that so thoroughly covers the matter. I applaud Wood for the historian she is, yet find it unfortunate that her writing style marks her as one.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A Fascinating Insight Into Creating Artificial Life And Intelligence! 26 Jan. 2006
By John Baranyai - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book about man's attempts to become "TheNew Prometheus "i.e. the "Creator " of artificail Life through automatons and robots. This book goes into great detailabout such curiousities and mechanicalmarvels such as "The Chess Player" and 'the Digestive Duck". This book goes to great lenghts to explore the connections between Theology, Mathematicsand Sorcery and offers insights into how through the Ages the notion that Man Is A Machine was hotly debated and ridiculed and dismiised as a type of "Heresy".I applaud Ms. Wood for her very thorough research and offering facts to the reader so thattheycanquestion his or her own views of this very interesting subject.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
An enjoyable exposition, but offers no challenge to the reader. 2 Jan. 2013
By Samsam - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
With illustrious story-telling technique, this nonfiction recounts the history of the android--the "mechanical man," which quite surprisingly has its origins in the eighteenth century. Wood explores the beliefs of both the creators and their contemporaries regarding the uniqueness of human beings and the potential for various human functions to be replicated in machines.

Very little information is available on Gaby Wood except that she is a senior writer for the observer. This was her first and only book, and her political/philosophical biases are as obscure as her thesis.

Below is a Chapter Summary. It doesn't do justice to Wood's prose, but it will let you know what you're in for with each chapter. If you're looking for a more concise review, skip on ahead to the conclusion.

Chapter 1: The Blood of an Android
Rene Descartes first opened the door to the concept of human beings as machines. In his Treatise on Man, he describes the body without the soul, and does so in a purely mechanical manner. By Descartes' understanding of humans, reason was the only part of man that was not in its essence mechanical. Later, an atheist man named La Mettrie wrote that man was in every sense an automaton, a "self-winding machine, a living representation of perpetual motion." He noted that many human functions have a clear mechanical counterpart (such as lungs and bellows), and suggested that the more intricate an android becomes, the more human-like it truly is.

These ideas were taken up in practice by a number of people, but the most noteworthy is certainly Jacques de Vaucanson, a builder of androids throughout the eighteenth century. Throughout his adult life, his construction of human-like automatons was met with much opposition, even taking the form of threats of violence, from those who saw his machines as a threat to the uniqueness of humans in their physical makeup.

Vaucanson's most famous work was perhaps his flute player. In its creation he boldly set out to replicate a task which required a great deal of human skill, and the end-result was an enormous success--a machine that could reportedly perform twelve distinct melodies on an actual flute, skillfully and in tune. His creations raised questions about the uniqueness of the human body in general, as they were able to perform tasks thought to be strictly human, via mechanisms that mimicked human anatomy in ways that no machine ought have need. As his last task, Vaucanson sought to create a bleeding automaton--a successful model of the human circulatory system. Ultimately, he died without success.

Chapter 2: An Unreasonable Game

This chapter is notably less dense, and focuses almost exclusively on the creation of a man named Wolfgang von Kempelen, who produced an automaton that initially troubled him as much as it amazed his audiences. It was in the form of a Turkish man, who sat at a chess board and, it would seem to audiences, was able to effectively play chess against a human counterpart. In his demonstrations, Kemplen would ritualistically open the automaton's various parts--different compartments within the human form and the structure on which it sat--to demonstrate that the machine was in fact purely mechanical. The machine would then play a game of chess against a human opponent, effectively moving the pieces. If the opponent made an illegal move, the machine would even roll its eyes and move the opponent's piece back.

This invention naturally sparked great debate, as it was firmly believed to be impossible for a machine to think. For the entirety of the automaton's tours around Europe, during which it successfully beat a number of great chess players including Napoleon and various royalty and aristocrats, papers were regularly published by skeptics speculating as to the dirty secret behind the machine. As it turned out, as many had speculated, the machine's chess playing faculties (but not its human-like mannerisms) were controlled by a person sitting scrunched inside the machine, magnetically moving the chess pieces by candlelight. The machine was operated by a number of different skilled chess players over the years, several of whom wrote of their experiences once the secret of the machine was outed. But the debate that arose from the idea of a thinking machine would outlive the machine itself.

Chapter 3: Edison's Eve

A more loosely-written chapter, Wood relates here Edison's famed reproduction of the human voice and also of a tremendously human-like appearance and mannerism in what he called his Eve. Having invented and then refined the phonograph, Edison quickly moved to take advantage of the now-lucrative doll industry that was gaining popularity in America. He would record the voices of little girls onto phonographs, and then put those phonographs into dolls for sale. Eventually his workshop was making upwards of 500 dolls per day. Various customers and visitors to his shop complained that the dolls were downright frightening, eerily straddling the line between human and machine. Visitors to his workshop expressed bizarre discontentment at machines which would manufacture hands by the hundreds. Eventually satisfaction with talking dolls seemed to give way to general discontentment with the idea of them. Potential customers found it unsettling to own a very heavy human-shaped object that was not convincing whatsoever as a person except for its tremendously realistic voice.

Chapter 4: Magical Mysteries, Mechanical Dreams

Wood describes the development of film as essentially just another type of automaton. "Into this world came another mechanized monster: the celluloid frames of the cinema, edited together by technological Frankensteins and brought to life. On film, man was made mechanical, reproduced over and over like an object in a factory, and granted movement by the cranking of a machine (160)." From its inception, film essentially went in two directions: on the one hand, Etienne-Jules Marey began to use cinema to capture motion that the naked eye could not. He would film people or animals moving and look at the film frame-by-frame in order to better understand motion--a truly scientific approach. Contrary to Marey's scientific approach, though, arose the efforts of Melies. Melies was himself a magician, the son of a shoemaker. Originally he feared cameras because "cameras can't lie;" but soon he found a way to make them serve his purposes by doing exactly that with the invention of trick motion picture photography. He filmed magic tricks and fairy tales. His most famous film for some time was the Man with the Rubber Head, which featured comical size manipulations of a disembodied version of his own head.

Chapter 5: The Doll Family

The final chapter of Wood's book is actually a somewhat clever reversal. Rather than focusing on the blurred line between human and android from the side of the human-like android, she tells a tale of a group of humans who sought to look like androids. The "Doll Family" was a family of hypopituitary dwarfs, adults the size of small children. They joined the circus and had an act that involved them trying to appear as much as possible like a group of small mechanical dolls. The whole act was intended to be somewhat unsettling for audience members, as it blurred the line between what was human and what was automaton. Really the effect was similar to that of Edison's dolls.


Overall the book was a very good read. Wood's prose is enticing, and each page draws you into the narrative. My only real complaint though is that she writes like a good journalist--her work is purely expository and ultimately lacks any real thesis or stated purpose. For me, an exploration of the history and ideas behind androids was sufficiently satisfying. But if you're looking for something deeply challenging, you won't find it here.
1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Mechanical Life 2 Oct. 2009
By Robert Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I believe that mechanical life does exist but there is more to it than Wood reviews.
Life uses energy to do work, has a "genetic" blueprint of some sort, learns/develops/adapts, is internally organized, responds to stimuli/reacts, exhibits homeostasis, grows, reproduces, etc. Machines like my Asa H do all these things (R. Jones, Trans. Kansas Acad. of Sci., vol 109, pg 159, 2006), especially when "embodied" in a robot. But Wood's book overlooks some of the important characteristics of living things.
5 of 20 people found the following review helpful
This is probably the worst book.. 16 Sept. 2006
By automaton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
...i have ever read.

Ms. Wood, with her new-labour, right-on attitude, has not the faintest idea how to relate anything in its proper historical context.

Snide, completely unnecessesary, asides belittling some of the most original thinkers of the past, only serve to highlight the author's ignorance.
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