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.