Thursday, August 02, 2007

Edison's Eve

Gaby Wood has written a gloriously messy book called Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life.

By "messy" I mean in all the best ways. Edison's Eve is about automatons, charlatans, midgets, and Thomas Edison, among other things. It specializes in rabbit holes, some of which are even more entertaining than the original subject. Mostly, though, it is an incredibly detailed history of automata and their creators, and it is wonderfully entertaining to read.

What I usually do when I read a book is dog-ear a page that has something I want to remember. I've dog-eared half of this book, seemingly, because there are remarkable facts on almost every page.

Here's one example out of many. Thomas Edison became obsessed in the 1880's (after his invention of the phonograph) with creating a lifelike children's doll that incorporated a miniature version of the phonograph.

The result resembled a child version of Frankenstein more than a doll--at least, when it's clothes were removed (see a picture here). It featured a tin torso to hold the phonograph, with slots in the tin to let sound escape.

With its clothes on, the doll looked quite different (see here)--even beautiful, in a haunting way.
Edison was convinced that that doll was going to be a huge commercial success, and created a special factory just to build them. Tens of thousands were made. They were both incredibly expensive and incredibly unreliable, however, and only a few hundred were ever sold.

Wood tells the story, as she tells all others, with a meticulous and riveting amount of detail. And there are dozens of other stories that she tells with the same amount of care. She is clearly as fascinated by the subject as we are.

Here's an Amazon link, and like I said, it's a terrific read: Edison's Eve.

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