irrational, a. 3. (Math.) Not capable of being exactly expressed by an integral number, or by a vulgar fraction. — Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)
All entries © 2004-2005 by David Moles.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

AD 1696 (Old Style) (AD 1697)

LONDON, ENGLAND — Robert Hooke, England’s premier anatomist, experimental philosopher, and horologist, prevails on the visiting Tsar Peter to fund the development of a race of clockwork automata for use in the construction of his new showpiece capital, St. Petersburg. The Tsar, his keen mind fascinated by all things modern and Western, is easily convinced, and the automata, impervious to the hardships and diseases endemic to working in a mosquito-ridden sub-Arctic swamp, complete the construction of the city in record time.

Hooke, alas, does not live to see their triumph, being struck down by diabetes in 1703. But the Tsar’s automata continue on, with improvements made by, among others, Jacques de Vaucanson (1743) and James Watt (1765). By the late eighteenth century, monarchs across Europe have sponsored imitations of Hooke’s automata, from Joseph Marie Jacquard’s androïdes automatiques to František Herget’s umĕli roboti. An enterprising military engineer, John Call, has a set of steam-powered Hooke-Fulton automata shipped to India in 1770, where they are quickly copied by local craftsmen; a few years later, Dutch marioneten are copied by Japanese artisans in Nagasaki and Javanese puppet-makers in Batavia. Meanwhile, Russia remains the world leader in automation — particularly in the development of non-humanoid automata (Russian объектомата), such as Catherine the Great’s celebrated Clockwork Stallion, minister Grigori Potemkin’s Clockwork Villages, and the series of bejeweled Automatic Eggs developed for the Tsars by the Fabergé family.

The impact of automation on the life of the average peasant is small, at first, but significant: the abolition of the feudal corvée, or forced-labor tax, as the monarchs of Europe and Asia follow Peter’s lead in assigning automata to the most hazardous and demanding public-works projects. Before long, however, automata are being employed in other fields — first replacing humans in dangerous, dehumanizing new industries such as coal-mining, then later, as government-subsidized purchase schemes make them more widely available, taking over the more menial and repetitive aspects of traditional fields like agriculture and manufacturing, freeing humans for creative and analytical tasks. An entire continent is spared the worst of the Industrial Revolution, as serfs and farmers and laborers are transformed in a generation into knowledge workers.

In the New World, change comes more slowly, but with the achievement of Colombian independence in 1819 comes an influx of British technocrats, and Hooke-Fulton automata are soon produced under license in Montevideo and Valparaiso. The slavery-based economies of North America and Brazil take a little longer to crack, but by 1831 Catherine Littlefield Greene’s automata, based on Jacquard’s models, have conquered the American South; and with the advent of vulcanized rubber in 1839, Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II sees the advantages of a domestic automation industry.

With an ever-rising standard of living, their material needs satisfied, the workers of the world see no reason to unite, no chains to lose. Attempts by certain imaginitive persons to organize the humanoid automata themselves find ends as comic as they are predictable, foundering on an inability to find in the mechanical workers evidence of any sort of consciousness, even a false one — let alone free will. It occurs to no one but a perennially discontented fringe to resent the automata, since the jobs they take are not ones any human being would want to do, and the radical increase in productivity created by automation is such a clear benefit to the general welfare.

The increasing trend, through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, toward more efficient non-humanoid forms only clarifies the risibility of treating automata as substitute humans. In 1953, with the launch of Sputnik-1 — an exquisite, fully self-guided sphere of gold, silver and diamond, created by the House of Fabergé to celebrate the birth of Tsarevna Maria Vladimirovna — automata enter the Space Age.¤