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  • The Victorian Automaton as Imaginary Prosthetic
  • Fiona Coll (bio)

In 1876, a short story entitled "The Troubles of an Automaton" appeared in the New Quarterly Magazine.1 Written by Clementina Black,2 the story begins with a fictional advertisement announcing the public exhibition of "Mr. Slade's Famous Chess-Playing Automaton." Black's non-fictional point of reference here is the famous mechanical chess player built by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769, which was exhibited across Europe and the Americas for more than sixty years.3 During its lengthy career, Kempelen's machine was dogged by intense speculation as to how the complex analytical and logical skills demanded by the game of chess were rendered in what appeared to be a mechanical form. Although the chess-player was destroyed in a fire before the questions surrounding its operation could be resolved, the prevailing assumption held that this "most astonishing Automaton that ever existed" concealed a human occupant within its frame to effect its marvellous operation (Windisch 17).4

Written more than twenty years after the destruction of the original chess-playing automaton, Black's story dispenses almost immediately with the mystery of how Mr. Slade's chess-player works. Sydney Bannerman, aspiring artist and reluctant protagonist, makes his entrance into the narrative only after being unlocked from the confines of the putative automaton, where he has spent the day operating the machine from within. Sydney's job, "from ten to four daily" (463), is to be the chess-playing mechanism inside Slade's chess-player, an occupation which renders him "pale and exhausted" but which leaves his mornings and evenings open for the pursuit of nobler interests (464). Membership in the Royal Academy and the hand of his beloved Edith in marriage constitute the entirety of Sydney's worldly aspirations, and it is in pursuit of the pecuniary footing for these dreams that he adopts "the character of automaton" for Mr. Slade (466).

From a diegetic perspective, the human element of this automaton-Sydney hybrid can be understood as a prosthetic involution by which Sydney's mind and body become coextensive with the hollow form of the chess player. However, there exists another sense in which the relationship between human and automaton in Black's story can be seen as a supplementary or prosthetic one. In this alternative formulation, the automaton serves as a projected limit-case in and around which a hypothetical teleology of human development can be explored. Specifically, Black's story imagines the effects that living in a highly standardized, systematized world might have on an individual's autonomy. Black's use of the automaton as a figure of extension, as a predictive indicator of the pressures to which human will and agency might prove vulnerable, emblematizes a larger cultural deployment of the automaton to [End Page 18] trace the shifting edges of the human as the difference between the natural and the technological became increasingly vexed in Victorian Britain. As a counterpart to Thomas Huxley's concern over the extent to which humans might be considered as automata (Huxley 574), this deployment operates under a more conjectural aspect, asking whether the humans of late-Victorian England might be becoming automata.

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Fig. 1.

Illustration featuring Sir Robert Peel as Kempelen's chess-playing automaton, with Richard Cobden as the man inside the machine. Punch 10 (1846): 68. Courtesy of Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Sydney Bannerman's becoming an automaton was "on his part entirely unpremeditated" (Black 465). His acceptance of Mr. Slade's offer of employment necessitated a simultaneous acceptance of the habitual physical and [End Page 19] psychological restraint required to keep the chess-player in operation: Sydney's bodily "imprisonment" in the chess-player is matched by a continuing obligation to keep his daily occupation a secret. Sydney's compliance with these rather comprehensive rules for playing chess is tested during a game against a well-to-do businessman, when, from his hidden vantage point inside the machine, Sydney sees a thief steal a billfold from the businessman's coat pocket. Sydney immediately stifles his natural instinct to call out and warn the man, although he...


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