Friday, February 4, 2011

Minsoo Kang's "Sublime Dreams of Living Machines"

Minsoo Kang is an associate professor of European history at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. He is also a fiction writer and the author of the short story collection Of Tales and Enigmas.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sublime Dreams of Living Machine: The Automaton in the European Imagination, and reported the following:
In my book Sublime Dreams of Living Machine, I trace the millennia-long fascination in the West with the self-moving machine that mimics a living creature that is best known today as the robot. While I look at the technological aspects of the object from the ancient Greek works of the first century CE engineer Hero of Alexandria, to the clockwork masterpieces of the Enlightenment and contemporary breakthroughs in robotics, my primary interest in the book is on how intellectuals, creative writers, and artists used the very idea of the life-imitating machine as a symbol and a conceptual tool to think about the nature of humanity. Looking at page ninety nine of the book reminded me how at one point I seriously considered putting the word ‘robot’ in the title since many people who were unfamiliar with the word ‘automaton’ asked me to define it. But I quickly decided against this: it offended my sensibilities as a historian to commit such an act of anachronism since ‘robot’ was not coined until the 1920s (by the Czech artist and writer Josef ńĆapek who allowed his brother Karel to use it for his science-fiction play R.U.R. Rossum’s Universal Robots). In fact, the definitions of words that denote autonomous machines is an important part of my book since I point out that ‘automaton’ itself underwent a number of changes in significance in the course of the many centuries since it was first used by ancient Greeks to denote any entity that is self-moving. Page ninety-nine features a very nice illustration of one ancient automaton designed by Hero – a figure of Heracles aiming an arrow at a serpent coiled around a tree (an apple lies between them which, when touched, releases the arrow). In the text below is a definition of yet another term for the object:
The origin of the word “android,” defined as an automaton that is specifically in the shape of a human being (as opposed to other living creatures), is obscure, but it is a medieval coinage from Greek roots (“andros,” man, and “eides,” species) and is commonly linked to Albertus Magnus.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the exact origin of the word, finding the earliest use of it in a sixteenth-century history book with a reference to the legend of the medieval philosopher Albertus Magnus constructing a moving statue that he employed as a servant. And so my research and obsession with automaton goes on.
Read more about Sublime Dreams of Living Machines at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue