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The Origins of Automata and the Uncanny in “Edison’s Eve”

All moveables of wonder, from all parts,/Are here–Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,/The Horse of Knowledge, and the learned Pig,/The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,/Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,/The Bust that speaks and moves it goggling eyes,/The Wax-work, Clock-work, and all the marvelous craft/Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,/All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,/All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts/Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats/All jumbled up together, to compose/A Parliament of Monsters.
– William Wordsworth, The Prelude
While doing some research for my webcomic a few months ago, I read a remarkable book called “Edison’s Eve” by Gaby Wood. It discusses the historical significance of automata from their initial conception to modern times. I wanted a bit of background on the history of automata in the 1800s, and what I got was a story of mankind questioning existence and our own complexities. It traces man’s obsession with life, illusion and our own mechanics in the creation of automatons, early motion pictures, and even the rise of the sideshow freaks that followed the automaton craze, which are all things I love learning about.
Georges Melies, “known as ‘the king of fantasmagora…[the] Jules Verne of film,'” liked his movies to be of a fantastic quality which “‘allowed him imaginative compositions, the most comical episodes, and, at the same time, the realization of things thought to be impossible. So in that genre, he found material which would satisfy primitives, but also intrigue scientists and give pleasure to artists'” (187).

 This is a very well-rounded read for someone looking for something beyond facts. It revels in the historical anecdotes, but also reveals the deep-seeded need of humans to understand their purposes and the meaning/value of life, and to show that this has been a universal quest throughout history.
Truly stirring, with a historical backdrop a steam-punk fan would die for. I took many notes, and my webcomic will be more fleshed out because of it, no matter what theme the story reveals to me.

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