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Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life [Paperback]

Gaby Wood
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 8, 2003 1400031583 978-1400031580 First Edition, First Printing
During the eighteenth century, the inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck that seemingly could digest and excrete its food. A few decades later, Europeans fell in love with “the Turk,” a celebrated chess-playing machine built in 1769. Thomas Edison was obsessed for years with making a talking mechanical doll, one of his few failures as an inventor. In our own time, scientists at MIT are trying to build a robot with emotions of its own.

What lies behind our age-old pursuit to create mechanical life? What does this pursuit tell us about human nature? In Edison’s Eve Gaby Wood traces the history of robotics, from its most brilliant inventions to its most ingenious hoaxes. Joining lively anecdote with literary, cultural, and philosophical insights, Wood offers a captivating and learned work of science and history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In five entertaining chapters, British journalist Wood describes the ways humans have built machines to resemble themselves over the past three centuries. Wood begins with the dynamic creations of the 18th-century Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, explaining how his elaborate automatons, most notably a mechanical flute player and a mechanical duck apparently capable of eating and defecating, fascinated onlookers throughout Europe. She then moves to Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess-playing machine, constructed to look like a Turkish gentleman and capable of beating virtually any chess player in the 18th century, and Thomas Alva Edison's unsuccessful attempt to capture the American toy market by incorporating a version of his phonograph into the first talking doll. In her fourth chapter, Wood switches her attention from machines that look like humans to humans who look like machines. To wit, the Doll family: four midgets who toured with Ringling Brothers' Circus and appeared in The Wizard of Oz, in addition to other lesser known Hollywood productions. Some audiences refused to believe the Dolls were alive, assuming instead that they were sophisticated toys. Wood's anecdotes are delightful, though the book as a whole feels somewhat repetitive and short on analysis. She frequently reminds readers that these historical vignettes show the continuous struggle to determine what makes us human, but that's about as far as her commentary goes.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker

Embodying the confusions between what is "lifelike" and what is alive, robots have always held an anxious fascination. When eighteenth-century physicians described the body as a complex piece of machinery, the stage was set for inventors like Jacques de Vaucanson, who thrilled Paris with a flute-playing android, and Wolfgang von Kempelen, whose chess-playing automaton took on the best players of its time. Deftly balancing historical detail with provocative meditations on the reception accorded such marvels, Wood then traces the development of subsequent imitations of life, such as the talking doll designed by Thomas Edison and the magic-filled films of Georges Méliès. Her contention that in the twentieth century human freaks came to seem more uncanny than machines may not entirely persuade, but the exotic particulars—especially those pertaining to a group of circus midgets called the Doll Family—more than make up for this inconsistency.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; First Edition, First Printing edition (July 8, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400031583
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400031580
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 5.1 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #609,051 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read. March 4, 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a great book for anyone interested in automata - and that includes computer people interested in artificial language, philosophers interested in what makes us human, cultural anthropologists interested in the interaction of humans and machines, and poets interested in all of the above. If you like this, try also The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous
Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage. Equally strange & pleasurable.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Anecdotal, Quirky History July 28, 2003
Edison's Eve (Edison's attempt to create a successful talking doll) is both the title of Gaby Wood's book and one of the centrepiece chapters of this journey on the quest for mechanical life. Other chapters concern the Doll Family of midgets, the movies of Melies, the automatons of Vaucanson and the deception of the chess playing Turk (not an actual automaton). These pieces do not always blend together smoothly but the author works very hard to connect all the dots. On their own, though, each chapter is fascinating and filled with memorable anecdotes and will have the reader looking at the world in a different way. An enjoyable read.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars mechanical humans: an ironic look July 28, 2007
Recounting in successive biographic episodes the ultimately pathetic efforts of men to build, with their own hands, artificial humans, Gaby Wood offers a uniquely female perspective. Especially since the mechanicals were often meant to be women. Although very learned, the author does not aim at an engineering evaluation. Rather, the stories she tells will elicit in psychologically sensitive readers a mixture of laughter and horror. As was the case with the audiences in front of which these creatures were presented, readers will first be fascinated but then will turn away in revulsion.
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5.0 out of 5 stars history of one form of technology April 27, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
We have gotten here with our pads and pods and phones and robotic assembly plants by a long line of wonderful devices.
I love this book. Good read for anyone interested in the history of toys and automation.
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Edison by Paul Israel

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