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Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life
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Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life

3.64  ·  Rating Details ·  242 Ratings  ·  45 Reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 278 pages
Published January 1st 2002 by Faber & Faber
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(showing 1-30)
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The individual chapters are pretty much across-the-board fascinating, and the author's name is "Gaby", which is great, and as long as I'm poking around for more goodwill to offer toward this thing, I'll also say the cover design is beautiful ("Wait," you ask, "better than Lives of the Monster Dogs?" A: YES.), but the parts are easily greater than the whole, which would not normally be a problem, except the author (whose name, recall, is "Gaby"! and she sort of looks like Natalie from Sports Nigh ...more
Jul 15, 2013 Phil rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
While this book started as an interesting history of automata, it then wandered a bit from the expected path. The author started to interject speculation as to the inventors' hidden agenda of somehow learning more about humanity through their creations. The ideas seemed pasted onto the history, the author's own opinion, rather than being any kind of factual goal of the inventor.

And really, all I could keep thinking the entire time I read about the inventors making the ideal woman or seeing the
Jun 05, 2013 Danine rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A. Very. Slow. Read. After reading the epilogue in "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" I noticed that Edison's Eve was mentioned. Most importantly, the section in Edison's Eve that referenced George Melies. I happened to have Edison's Eve in my personal library so I read it.

Wood is a fine researcher. I felt that this book was a research project. It was informative and concise, yes, but I had a hard time staying interested. I appreciated her efforts of creating a timeline of Vaucanson's inventions. I
Aug 17, 2012 Anna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've tagged this as science, but it's only science-ish. Anyway, I really, really enjoyed this book. I thought it was fascinating. I also found it extraordinary that, in a book where I expected to know absolutely nothing about the subject matter, I found I did! In the first chapter Wood talks a little about La Mettrie's 'Man a Machine', and I had to read that for one of my modules last year. There were another two writings mentioned early on that I read in the same class. Then, last night when I ...more
Douglas Dalrymple
In the 1980s there was an awful television sitcom called ‘Small Wonder’ about a family with a mechanical daughter. The father, an inventor, built her himself. She was named Vicky (for V.I.C.I. – “Voice Input Child Identicant”). She spoke with a flat affect and wore the same ugly red and white dress every day.

Like I say, it was a terrible show. It was also an oddly fascinating introduction to the idea of humanoid automata and the practical and philosophical issues they raise. Descartes was said
Jenny Brown
Feb 16, 2012 Jenny Brown rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This was a GoodReads recommendation. I've found some fine books that way, but this sure wasn't one of them.

The author seems unable to think for herself. Everything has to be cast in terms of what an approved Male Cultural Authority Figure says, even, God help us, Freud.

The inclusion of a chapter about a family of performing midgets in a book about automata struck me as tasteless and irrelevant.

I had already read about most of the automata discussed here and learned nothing new about them.

The book references the novel 'The Future Eve' (1886) by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. A quote from Future Eve goes: "If our gods and our hopes are now all scientific, then is there any reason why our love should not be scientific as well?" This quote appears on the screen in the beginning of the cyberpunk anime film 'Ghost in the Shell: Innocence.'

This is a necessary book if you want to understand the connections between cyberpunk, gothic fiction, and the production of modern automata. This
Jan 12, 2012 Ann-marie rated it it was amazing
I read this book during my research on my Masters thesis on the body and technology in early silent film, and found it not only a rich resource, but also a massively entertaining and engrossing read, particularly the sections on the 18th and 19th century automatons. It sparked my interest in that area, and led me to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, whose author coincidentally says Wood's book inspired him to write Hugo. Her research is indeed inspiring, I can't recommend it enough for those in ...more
Well I'm not entirely sure what I'm getting into when a book starts out with ~philosophy~.
The words "automatic" and "mechanical" are fundamental here, loaded terms that carried within them an inflammatory philosophical debate, pitting materialists against theologians.
WHOOooooooooo!! Cannot handle all this excitement right now!!

I kid, I kid... The first chapter presents all of this clearly, when it could have become bogged down with such dry material.

After reading The Turk, I mentioned in my re
Apr 05, 2015 Luke rated it it was ok
Gaby Wood's book seemed to have been the perfect tome for me: for years I've been entranced by its major topics - Jacques de Vaucanson's writing automata and digesting duck and Wolfgang von Kempelen's 'The Turk' chess playing robot. I suppose like any young boy, clockwork, robots and artificial humans had become an abiding interest.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't live up to its title. It's portraiture, not history. And it's certainly not as rigorous as I'd have liked.

Part of the problem is tha
Sep 18, 2012 Ilya rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: retro-computing
Wood's previous book was a cultural history of dwarfs; this one is a cultural history of 18th- and 19th-century robots. A modern-day assembly line welding robot or a Mars rover has a microprocessor, the output of which is decoded, amplified and fed to electromechanical actuators. A mid-18th-century automatic flute player or draftsman, however, was wholly mechanical. When I read about these automata, I wanted to know how they worked; this book is the wrong place to look for this information. If, ...more
Tim Pendry
Jun 07, 2008 Tim Pendry rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: For General Interest Readers
Shelves: cultural-studies
[Published as Living Dolls in the UK]

This is really five essays on incidents in the relationship between being human that are each entertaining in themselves but are not strung together with any over-arching narrative or meaningful theory. Vaucanson's mechanical shitting duck, Kempelen's fraudulent Turkish chess player, Edison's investment in doll manufacturing, Melies' experimental film-making and the adventures of the Doll family (small people) in the American entertainment industry provide in
Jul 29, 2010 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science-math
A very interesting book about automata and artificial life, their inventor/creators, and the idea of what it means to be human. I was especially fascinated by the backlash that the inventors dealt with when their creations became "too human" and made observers uncomfortable. Gaby Wood loses a bit of her focus and stretches the main idea of the book in the chapter about the undersized circus performers the Doll Family,but in general I found her writing style to be entertaining and informative.

Douglas Summers-Stay
Somehow I forgot to put this book up. Most of the material on automata I was already familiar with, but the section about Edison's talking dolls was pretty interesting. It was also kind of cool to see someone else drawing connections between automata and the idea of the uncanny. The section on early filmmaking and its ties to magic were also fun. I guess if I hadn't had a lot of the same material in my book I would have learned a lot more from this.
The last section about a particular family of l
Dec 29, 2014 Fred rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A thoroughly researched and interesting review of the history of artificial intelligence, that sadly spiraled into an outlandish attempt at drawing a connection between AI and a very brief U.S. obsession with little people. I suppose a very thin connection exists between the two, but it was a stretch to say the least.

All things considered, a very good non-fiction book by a technically superior author (I find most modern non-fiction authors to be sloppy and overly verbose).
Jul 23, 2013 Kelly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was exactly what I needed at the time I picked it up. An easy-to-read compelling nonfiction book about stuff I've always been tangentially interested in but never studied. Automata, Edison, Man's creation of artificial life, the Pygmalion/Galatea myth, The Chess-Playing Turk. This gave me a big boost in my poetry writing schedule and got me started on a chapbook and researching a whole range of slightly related ideas.
Ben Wilson
Oct 01, 2007 Ben Wilson rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: automata, steampunks, makers
Shelves: steampunk
A fascinating look at history of the living doll - the automaton. Clockwork creations meant to "live" through their complicated works. Endlessly fascinating for those interested in artificial intelligence and the history of machines and the men who make them.
Sep 26, 2011 meg rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think the Introduction and the parts about Vaucanson and Maezel (with P.T. Barnum and etc.) are well worth reading but the book started to lose it's focus with Edison and the stories after. Would definitely recommend picking up and reading the first half though, if only for the discussion of the Uncanny and the early genius of automata.
Chris Schaeffer
Jan 04, 2011 Chris Schaeffer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A nice historical/scientific counterpoint to Hugh Kenner's more literary criticism-oriented "The Counterfeiters." I didn't know that at the time though. Gets kind of thematically broad near the end (mechanical life... mechanical life... mechanical life... dwarfism in movies?) but it's consistently entertaining.
Lone Automaton
Aug 22, 2012 Lone Automaton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A brilliant and entertaining book on automata and human ingenuity. I have always for as long as I can remember been fascinated by robotics, puppets and automatons, but it wasn't until I saw the movie "Hugo" that I thought to look for a book on the topic. If you are in any way interested in mechanical life the stories and histories in this book will keep you entertained.
Nov 29, 2015 Mallory rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really enjoyed it. I gives an interesting history of the automaton and peoples' reactions to such mechanical and human-like objects. Some of the stories told about the old, clockwork automata are amazing and it is hard for someone in who grew up with computers to imagine something that could execute fairly intricate movements was moving purely by clockwork.
Mar 31, 2016 Leif rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Extremely interesting, but contains a strange diversion involving midgets. The author attempts to justify this...only making it seem all the more odd.

Robots and...before electricity! So cool!

Dec 10, 2013 Anita rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading this book you might not learn as much about "mechanical life" as you'd hoped, but you will learn about some other intriguing things. I could have done without the last chapter on the Doll family, but the rest of the book was engaging and thought-provoking.
Grayson Wasteland
very cool history, though surprisingly dense. i would have preferred a less dense read in exchange for the explorations or more inventions. reading on the few inventions he does investigate, well you'll pretty much be an expert on those by the end of it.
Feb 05, 2012 Jr rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
i didn't much care for the edison/talking doll research since it was longwinded and somewhat dull, but the material on "the turk" chess playing automaton and other areas was top notch infotainment. good stuff for those interested in older forms of androids and mechanized life facsimiles.
Aug 29, 2012 Kevin rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Several vignette's of the automaton and invention. I enjoyed the story that supplies the title but the book didn't tie them together as concretely as I would expect. Overall, an interesting compilation. One of the stories of a mechanical chess player is more thoroughly examined in the Turk.
Sep 26, 2008 Carrie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you're obsessed with automata (and for some reason I am right now), this is an awesome book--Wood brings together a wide range of philosophical and historical sources. She's a bit heavy-handed with some of her interpretations (not to mention repetitive), but it's a fun read.
Abby Tamkin
I read the intro and 5 pages of the first chapter, but I can't do any more.
Her stated goal is to combine the history of automata with a philosophy of them. While in theory it's an nice idea, it's too wandering a circuitous for me. More history, less meandering psychobabble speculation please.
Apr 16, 2010 Luci rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an interesting informal history of mechanical toys and automatons dating from the 18th century. The author tends to wander but offers some interesting history and unusual anecdotes about the history of "mechanical others."
Melissa Luna
Dec 18, 2007 Melissa Luna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Certainly interesting/informative. Not the kind of thing I would normally read so it was all the more interesting because of that fact alone. If you like this subject matter, I would highly recommend watching an opera called Tales of Hoffman.
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