From Chapter 3. Accepting the Challenge (The Departure)
Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address articulated a transition in American life. He reminded the victorious Unionists and defeated Confederates that during the war they both prayed to the same God, but that neither side knew whether God approved of their actions. Lincoln thereby placed the power to create, build, and control the forces of nature back into the hands of the American people, a people that had witnessed the deaths of over half a million brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons on battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam. The next year this American Prometheus was assassinated. Three years later, in 1868, Edward S. Ellis, in his popular dime novels, created the first mechanical-man in American literature--the Steam Man. Thirty-two years later, L. Frank Baum, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, presented the Tin Woodman. And between these two figures a mechanical-man resembling Maelzel’s automaton-hoax, the subject of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Moxon’s Master,” would act as the centerpiece of America’s imaginary history of mechanical-men.
In these first literary versions of identifiably American mechanical-men, we see the genesis of a mythic rite of passage for ourselves in coming to terms with the technology we create and in recognizing our human relationship to mechanical-men working alongside us in the garden. In these fictive tales, the very notions that we once held pertaining to control and communication between machines and humans take new form. In addition, humans are edified through fiction on how machines and technology reflect the departure stage of our mythic narrative--recognizing their new dependence upon technology and each other, and attempting to understand novel definitions of what information and control means in an emerging techno-society--and how ambiguities within the umbrage of human-machine interactions will not be easy to resolve. Nevertheless, the optimism brought about by new inventions during this era between the Civil War and WWI propels American society to enter this departure stage of human-machine interactions.
The Railway System as Mechanical-Man
Ralph Waldo Emerson likened the railroad to a magician’s rod—it had transformed America into a great industrial nation with merely one wave. In 1820, the United States was a disjointed nation composed of lonely and self-sufficient farmers. But the railroad would make us something different. It welded the nation together, creating an American outlook, an American point of view.
During the Civil War, everyone had witnessed the transformative power of the railroad and how it had changed military history forever. In the North steam engines were seen as saviors, delivering supplies efficiently and predictably. Previously disdainful of railways, intellectuals now looked upon them as glue that would connect the states, never allowing another succession from the Union. To others--Native Americans, plantation owners in the South, and those who feared that the railroad would destroy the western frontier and the yeoman farmer lifestyle--steam engines were monsters, destroying all of nature and humanity in its path. Nevertheless, the victorious Union states now envisioned a country connected by an interlocking network of railways. With such conflicting views of the railway system and the steam engine, it was only logical that the first mechanical-man in American literature would reflect ambivalence.
The best-known literary genre that draws on myth’s foundational power in America has always been the western with its emphasis on the individualistic cowboy. “Progress associated with the western frontier,” writes Eugene Rosow, “meant a geographic movement away from the decaying civilization of Europe toward the fresh possibilities offered by the wilderness, an optimistic march away from the past toward the future of America, home of the brave and free.”1 If America were to shift from this established narrative into the technological future by way of myth, it needed to do so in a gradual manner. Therefore, the hero archetype in the form of a mechanical-man necessitated an environment that fascinated the emerging technological fantasies of Americans but one with which they were also familiar, namely, the Wild West, now replete with inventors and machines.
The American imagination needed to make a pivotal transition from the “iron horse to an iron human.”2 Sam Moskowitz, in Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction, discusses the first tales that personify steam power as a transcendent force behind westward expansion and a burgeoning industrial economy. Among such tales, he notes, was The Steam Man of the Prairies, published in August of 1868, as #45 of Beadle’s Dime Novels. At the time, Edward S. Ellis, the Steam Man’s creator, was a superintendent of schools in New Jersey and had authored fifty books on American history. In that same year, Zadoc P. Dederick, a machinist from Newark, New Jersey, was granted a patent on March 24th for a steam carriage constructed to resemble the human body. According to a newspaper report, Dederick’s invention was “seven foot tall, the boiler was disguised by dressing the machine in a suit. When it was time to refuel, the driver was supposed to have unbuttoned the vest that hid the burner door.” The article even stated that the Steam Man had a “cheerful countenance” and a stovepipe hat.3 Ellis describes the imaginary Steam Man in a similar manner:
“It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the stovepipe hat, which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was traded to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arm-like projections held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of base-ball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time the bolt uprightness in the figure showed different [sic] from a human being.”4
During this time, periodicals such as Scientific American sought to exploit the public’s curiosity about the potential of inventions in a technological society by discussing the practical purpose of building a Steam Man as early as 1849: “Our own opinion is that there is nothing wonderful about it. There are hundreds of mechanics in our own land who could make steam men, if they received orders to do so and good pay for their labor.” When Dederick and Isaac Grass were granted a patent for a steam carriage constructed to “resemble that of a human body,” the event became news in local as well as national publications.5
Ellis’s anthropomorphizing of the railway system illuminates a new optimism regarding technological innovation. Northern industrialists, entrepreneurs, and businessmen could harness the power of the railway system they had witnessed during the Civil War and leverage it for profit, while immigrants could be exploited for manual labor, Native Americans forcefully removed, and yeoman farmers bought out. The Steam Man reflects this nexus of conflicts and contradictions in American society leading up to and persisting throughout the Gilded Age. This mechanical emblem became a symbol of how harnessing nature allowed mankind to achieve its larger goals.
Ellis’s android transformed the railway system into a quasi-human form. Like a train, it was powered by steam and made almost entirely of iron, but the Steam Man was not hindered by track that it must follow. Moreover, Ellis gave the apparatus “a pair of arm-like projections,” “legs,” and a “face” with “fearful eyes” and a “tremendous grinning mouth.”6 These details about the mechanical-man’s face reflect traits of American society at the time. His fearful eyes are symbolic of how Indians, slaves, farmers, and immigrants viewed this emerging technology and the capitalistic avarice of Robber Barons who monopolized and controlled all aspects of the railway system. Conversely, the figure’s grinning mouth is symbolic of how middle- and upper-class whites viewed these same corporate moguls as Captains of Industry who were shifting the country away from an agrarian household economy and toward an industrial empire. Ellis’s Steam Man thus captures the country’s divided vision of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John Jacob Astor as being both Captains of Industry and Robber Barons.
Although the Steam Man could not think, speak, or converse, it nevertheless was imbued with both human and machine-like qualities. The figure was programmed to serve the needs of the one who controlled the apparatus. Thus, the first mechanical-man in the American popular imagination is a conflation of the human brain and a machine, since the former controls the latter. The mechanical-man’s dependency on his inventor is indicative of the numerous dependent factions in the United States before and during the Civil War: African slaves and plantation owners, Native Americans and federal or state governments, immigrants and employers, farmers and the federal government. This curious relationship between groups and institutions had been noted earlier by French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville, who lauded the American white male for his independence and individuality but who also found it troubling that so many others were very much dependent on others for their well-being and rights. These dependents, Tocqueville noted, seemed incapable of finding their individuality without inevitable conflict.7
The Steam Man as Hunter and Hunted
The function of the Steam Man becomes more complex as Ellis’s tale progresses, but his major function is still one of transportation. He replaces horses in dragging a wagon behind him at a rate of speed far surpassing that of any animal. In this age between the Civil War and WWI, the Steam Man thus violates the laws of natural selection. It is now the Steam Man that stampedes through the wilderness and transports farmers to new land; it is the Steam Man that accomplishes the work of miners more efficiently than humans. Turning the complex into the simple by human ingenuity shows how even the laws of nature can be manipulated and changed by the creative will of man.
In an era of Social Darwinism, Ellis suggests that in order for Americans to survive the challenges of new frontiers, whether of the West with its “savage” Indians, mining towns plagued by lawlessness, or urban cities with overcrowded tenements and gang warfare, they had to adjust to these environments and use their ingenuity to create mechanisms still capable of being controlled by the human mind. People had to become more dependent on technology and each other if they wished to fulfill the American Dream in terms of conquest and destiny. For Ellis, in this post-Civil War period, man was no longer capable of surviving without the help of technology. It was no longer an age of romantic transcendentalism but rather one of realism and pragmatism. Even war itself was no longer looked upon as a means to achieve heroic stature in terms of myth and romance; rather, war now became a means to marshal into the social psyche technological awareness along with the necessity of technological advancement and production. War based more on technology and machinery rather than tactics necessitated a need to spur technological growth. It also led to thoughts of technology as a dubious force, which can foster both life and death.