The ghost factories: Histories of automata and artificial life

AHP readers will be interested in a recent historiographic essay “The ghost factories: histories of automata and artificial life” by Edward Jones-Imhotep (free access). As Jones-Imhotep writes in History of Technology,

Imagine a factory. On the shop floor stands a single worker – a young girl. Surrounding her are the hulking frames of weaving looms, four of them, in riotous mechanical action. The girl doesn’t operate the machines. Instead, they operate themselves. The fabric, more perfect and uniform than human hands can manage, ‘weaves itself’. The girl’s job, her only job, is to watch the machines, making sure nothing threatens their work. She cleans the silk, she mends a broken thread, she reloads an empty shuttle. To do this, she stops the machine by pressing a single button, located on one of their four corners. When she’s finished, she presses the button again and the mechanism shudders back to life, exactly where it left off.

That vision – a ghost factory – appeared in the November 1745 edition of the Mercure de France. It advertised the latest invention of Jacques de Vaucanson, tenth child of a Grenoble glove-maker and high wizard of mid-eighteenth century automation. Among the automata makers of his time, Vaucanson was unrivaled. The detail and sophistication of his automata – defecating ducks, tambourine- and flute-playing androids – dazzled his audiences and defined the approach to automata for generations to come. His talents were clearly portable. The techniques he employed and the visions he conjured cut across the spheres of courtly leisure, proto-industrial labor, and Enlightenment governance. Frederick the Great courted him. Voltaire sang his praises. Louis XIV proposed sending him to Guyana to source rubber for a mechanical model of the human circulatory system. Arguably though, Vaucanson’s greatest and most lasting feat involved none these accolades. Instead, his real legacy was to popularize a way of talking about machines. At the heart of all his work, including his spectral account of factory production, was a set of erasures – physical and rhetorical – that made the illusion of automation possible. Where were the artisans who built these automated machines? Who spun the threads that ‘wove themselves’ into impossibly fine fabric? Where were the Chinese and North African and West Indian laborers who gathered the silk and cotton from far-flung trading posts and colonies? It’s only at the end of his striking account that Vaucanson revealed the hidden organic forces powering his automated looms: a horse, moving water, a man, an eight-year old child. Vaucanson didn’t invent this opportunistically porous way of talking about automation and machinic self-action; at least not single-handedly. It was a collective enterprise. Historically, automata of all kinds – from androids to factory machines to our own autonomous technologies – have relied on this type of disappearing trick. And they’re still playing it.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.