(Continuing the narrative that began here.)
Letter the Second: Sir George Purvis to Miss Amelia Purvis.
My dear Sister,—
‘Tis but two Days since I wrote you last, but I trust you will forgive me for Trespassing so soon on your Attention, when I tell you that I bring you the freshest Intelligence from London: I mean News of the marvelous Automaton itself, which I have now seen with my own Eyes, and not on a distant Stage, but at my Side in my lady Neville’s Drawing-room.
I have, you recall, often been a Guest of the Nevilles; it is, indeed, my usual Custom to spend one Evening each Week watching Sir Joshua dust the Snuff from his Sleeve, which is the ordinary Extent of his Participation in the Proceedings. No Purpose would be served by my Pretending to you that these Evenings are anything but dull; but ’tis a comfortable Dulness, and our family Connexion makes it a Species of Duty for me to attend, whatever my Inclination might otherwise be.
You may well imagine my Surprize, then, when I arrived last Night and found, not the usual Complement of faded Beaux, ambitious Tradesmen’s Wives, and supernumerary Divines, but a Throng of the most fashionable Guests, all of ’em apparently Sir Joshua’s oldest and most intimate Friends, tho’ I cannot recall ever having seen any of ’em there before.
I soon discovered (as you will have already surmised) the Cause of Sir Joshua’s sudden Rise in the World of Fashion: For as I entered the Drawing-room, I beheld a great Crowd gathered in the Corner opposite; and at the Center of it, a Head taller and as much broader than anyone else in the Room, was the famous Doctor Albertus himself. Beside him was an enormous wooden Chest, elaborately carved and ornamented in the oriental Stile, and doubtless containing the Object of everybody’s Curiosity.
This Doctor Albertus is a striking Figure of a Man; and tho’ I shall attempt to describe him to you, nothing can convey the Effect of the Man himself. To his prodigious Size I have already alluded. He wears his own Hair, which grows in such Profusion that I can only say he must possess an extraordinarily fertile Head. He wears a full beard as well, and ’tis at once apparent that his Head is equally fertile all the Way round. This Beard alone would suffice to set him apart from the common Mass of Mankind, and to mark him as something out of the ordinary Way; but his other Features combine to give the Impression of entire Singularity. His Nose, which I mention first because it is most certainly the first Thing you would notice after the Beard, is of the aquiline Type, and perfectly formed, but much larger than his Visage would appear to require, as tho’ ’twere fashioned for one of the antediluvian Giants, and given to Doctor Albertus on the Extinction of that unfortunate Race. His Mouth is hard and determined, even on those rare Occasions when he smiles, at which Time he reveals two Rows of Teeth perfectly white and straight. His Eyes are sharp and penetrating, set beneath prominent Brows surmounted by luxuriant Tufts of Hair. His entire Frame is large but not corpulent; and his every Movement shews a deliberate Grace, as tho’ he might call on a vast Reservoir of Strength if he chose to do so. He speaks our Tongue perfectly and without Effort, but with enough of the High Dutch in his Pronunciation to betray his Origin, and with a certain Number of archaic Words and Forms, which suggest a greater Familiarity with the Literature of fifty Years ago than with the current Speech of the Day. His Voice is deep, and in a small Space resounds as tho’ he were speaking in a great Hall. In short, every Aspect of his Appearance contributes to the Air of entire Singularity that surrounds him, and even without the Automaton he would be a remarkable Figure of a Man.
The Automaton, however, is the Thing that has made the reputation of Doctor Albertus, and has added the Epithet “eminent” to his Name, so that indeed the Word now seems his personal Property. Tho’ imprisoned in a Box, and thus in a Manner absent, the Automaton was as much Lord of the Room as if it were seated on a Throne in the Middle of it; and any Glory that shone from Doctor Albertus was a mere reflected Moon-light, for the Automaton was the Sun.
After all this Description, you may have forgot my place in the Narrative: I repeat, therefore, that I had arrived at my lady Neville’s. Sir Joshua greeted me pleasantly enough, but in a perfunctory Manner; and it was not hard to see that it was his more fashionable Guests who consumed most of his Attention. Lady Neville, however, was most charming and solicitous; and, having greeted me, she took me at once to the Corner where Doctor Albertus held Court. Making a Kind of Furrow in the assembled Crowd, she brought me to the august Presence and presented me to the eminent Doctor.
I soon discovered that Doctor Albertus has an Air of easy Amiability about him, and his Charm was directed at me with all its Force. “Sir George Purvis? (quoth he) O but no Introduction is necessary. Your Reputation is Introduction enough wherever you go.”
“I was not aware (I reply’d) that I had any sort of Reputation at all.”
“Your Modesty is creditable, but unnecessary. I have often heard you spoken of as a Man of Parts, and one in whom the Lamp of true Philosophy shines bright.”
It may have been Flattery, but I own I was pleased thus to be acknowledged by the famous Doctor. “I know not what you may have heard of me, but I am always grateful for the kind Words of my Friends.”
“The wise Man always has all the Learned for his Friends, and I hope that I may be enrolled in that Number.”
I was aware that the Conversation, which had been animated before my Arrival, had come to a Stop. “Please do not allow a late Arrival to divert the Stream of your Conversation,” I said to the Company at Large.
“Not at all (quoth Doctor Albertus), for I was just about to give us a small Demonstration of the Capabilities of my Machine.”
At this a Murmur spread through the Guests, and all Eyes turned toward the great wooden Chest that stood in our Midst.
“I warn you first, my Friends (continued Doctor Albertus), that there are yet Flaws in the Mechanism, and Imperfections which must be overcome. The Automaton is moreover in a very primitive State of Development, and must be considered rather as a kind of Presentiment of what Science must certainly accomplish one Day, than as a completed Work. I make these frank Acknowledgments because I have heard, and perhaps you have heard as well, certain Rumors spread abroad, to the Effect that the Automaton is perfect in its Construction, and indistinguishable in its Capabilities from a veritable Woman: Which Rumors are unfounded, and but the natural Consequence of that Inflation or Magnification which invariably accompanies the Spread of any Intelligence. I make no such Claims for my Work.
“My Claim is more modest, but still perhaps of some Import: For I call myself the Inventor of a new Science, which is the Art of producing living Machines. And my Automaton, however imperfect in its capabilities, is nevertheless the first of what must in Time to Come be a great Multitude of such Machines. I may, indeed, style her the new Eve, Mother of her Race.”
At this, a few of the Observers laughed; but Doctor Albertus’ expression was unchanged. “Again I say, a great Multitude; but at present there is but one, and that one mine. Now, therefore, let us see what this Machine can do. You, sir”–he turned to address me–“You, sir, appear to be a Man of Strength and Dexterity: May I ask your Assistance in opening the Front of my Box, and freeing my Automaton to join our Conversation?”
Lady Neville interposed, saying, That her Footmen were more than equal to the Task; to which Doctor Albertus bowed, and reply’d, That he did not wish to trouble them, when two strong Men might lift the Cover in a Moment. I need not tell you, that I was more than willing to offer my Assistance.
The Chest was fitted with a Panel or Lid in the Front, latched on with brazen Buckles, and having two Handles, by means of which it might be lifted away once the Buckles were undone. The Wood was heavy, but not so heavy that Doctor Albertus and I had any Trouble moving it to one side–tho’ I dare say Doctor Albertus carried most of the weight, confirming my Impression that he was a Man of great physical Power.
Not until we had set the Lid aside was I able to turn and look into the Box, and then I had my first Glimpse of the celebrated Automaton.
It was a Woman, or a Thing that resembled a Woman in its general Proportions; but its Complexion was grey all over, and its Face entirely devoid of any Expression. At first it was altogether motionless: But then its Eyes opened, and it stepped forth from its Chest.
“For the Sake of Decency (quoth Doctor Albertus) I have given my Machine this Drapery, which resembles in many Particulars that affected by the Grecians in the Age of Pericles. You may be assured, however, that the Automaton is a perfect Woman in every Detail, for which I must thank a certain well-known Sculptor in the Palatine, who labored with me in creating the Design, and of whom I entertain the highest possible Opinion; indeed, I have often spoken of him as a new Praxiteles.“
The Assembly parted as the Machine took two more steps forward; and I observed that nobody seemed disposed to stand too near the Thing. Its Stride was so awkward, that with each Step I thought it must surely fall and be smashed to Pieces.
“The Automaton (Doctor Albertus explained) responds to Light and Shadow, tho’ it has other Senses by which it may find its Way in utter Darkness. We may therefore say that it sees; but we must remember that we speak in Metaphors, for the Perceptions and Understanding of a Machine differ from ours in Kind. Thus the Introduction of Light into its Chamber has caused it to awaken, so to speak; which is to say, to rouse itself from Inertia into Activity.”
Here the Automaton turned to face its Creator, who continued thus: “It responds also to Sounds, and responds differently to different Resonances; wherefore I may say, speaking again in Metaphor, that it knows my Voice.”
Here he gave the Automaton a Series of simple Commands, such as to walk, turn right, step backwards, &c., the Machine executing each one with perfect Alacrity, tho’ with the same Awkwardness I had observed before.
The Demonstration was brief, Doctor Albertus explaining that too much Activity might put the Mechanism out of Adjustment. After a few more Turns, the Automaton marched back into its Box, and the Company resumed its Conversation: A Conversation over which Dr. Albertus ruled as absolute Monarch, his philosophical Speculations concerning the Automaton being as wonderfully out of the Ordinary as the Machine itself.
As I have already scribbled, very probably, the longest Letter you have ever received, I shall end it now with one more Piece of News: Which is that I have invited the eminent Doctor Albertus to visit me to-morrow and discuss his Philosophy in more Depth, and he has kindly accepted my Invitation: A Point which made me the Envy of many of the more fashionable Guests. I shall not neglect my Promises to you, and shall report every Word of our Conversation, so far as it lies in my Ability to do so. Until then, with my Apologies for a Letter so full of Bulk without Substance,
I remain, &c.