The Automation Chess Player, built by one Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769, was a popular attraction in Europe and America for almost a century. A carved-wood figure of a man dressed as a Turk, the Chess Player had a mechanical arm with which, apparently under its own power, it moved pieces on a chessboard that was affixed to the wooden chest before it. Somewhere it had a brain, too: the Chess Player managed to hold its own against the best players of its day.
How the device performed its feats was a subject of much speculation. Edgar Allan Poe devoted an essay to the subject. That Kempelen’s invention proved a kind of hoax (a concealed human directed the mechanical man’s moves) is, as Gaby Wood shows during her new study of the prehistory of artificial intelligence, Edison’s Eve, unimportant. The Chess Player’s charm lay in the chance it gave audiences to " tempt fate and fear with the idea [emphasis mine] that machines could be like humans, without ever having to deal with the reality. It was like playing with machinery, or playing with what was human, the way one might play with fire. " Not the least of the pleasures of Wood’s book is the way it captures the thrill of this simple and profound game between the human and the inanimate.
Wood tracks down five avatars of artificial intelligence, locates each in the context of then-contemporary assumptions about what it meant to be human, and shows how each foreboding of mechanical life threatened those assumptions. She likes the gray areas that surround a fact. She makes you share a historian’s delight in the detail that would be lost to oblivion but for her. And she is unafraid to interpret her details, to show how they might fit into larger pictures.
Her first chapter deals with automata of the 18th century — the " philosophical toys " with which inventors sought to test the controversial thesis that humans themselves were but machines. Her central figure is Jacques de Vaucanson, who built, among other marvels, a mechanical duck that apparently ate, digested, and excreted food. Vaucanson’s automata paved the way for such constructions as Kempelen’s Chess Player, the subject of Wood’s second chapter.
Edison’s Eve takes its title from its third chapter, which concerns Thomas Edison’s efforts to make and market a talking female doll. Wood finds similarities between this project and the quest of a fictional Edison to create an ideal woman in Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s 1886 novel The Eve of the Future. In her fourth chapter, she examines the prehistory and early history of cinema, choosing as her hero Georges Méliès, the stage magician who became the first master of filmic illusion.
Wood’s last chapter traces the career of four midget siblings, the Schneiders, who were brought from Germany to the US to perform in circuses and in films as flesh-and-blood " Dolls. " The best-known of the siblings, rechristened Harry and Daisy Earles, starred memorably in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), and they also appeared as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939). She closes the chapter with an account of her trip to Sarasota, Florida, where she met the last survivor of the Doll Family.
The writing is imaginative, as befits a study of the imaginary. This is how Wood describes Étienne-Jules Marey’s film of a fist clenching and unclenching: " Detached from its experimental context, the hand seems to be borrowed from a horror film, testing a newfound movement, as if it were a monster trying out humanity, limb by limb and muscle by muscle. " Lighting up the historical chain, she makes you share the sense of aptness she finds in the stray tidbit that Méliès directed the actors in his stop-motion films " to the sound of a metronome, Maelzel’s invention " (Johann Maelzel bought and exhibited the Automation Chess Player after Kempelen’s death).
Wood lets us take what moral or philosophical lessons we can from her story rather than straining to insist on those she wants to teach us. She suggests a richness greater than what’s on the page, and she pays us the tribute of considering us capable of finding it on our own. And she never overstates the links between the fictions of past science and the science fictions in which we live today — though these links are there to be found throughout her haunting and elegant book.
Gaby Wood reads at WordsWorth on Tuesday, September 17. Call (617) 354-5201.