blip

The word blip is perhaps originally a coinage by Mark Twain, in Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), to mean a sudden blow, perhaps a minor kind of ‘bop’: – a character is given ‘a blip in the back’ and knocked off his feet by the hot-air balloon in which Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are sailing over the Sahara desert, which causes him to fall over (Twain 1894, 187).

As one might expect, blip enters the language as the imitation of a sound. It is first cousin to ‘beep’, most commonly employed to signify the sound inviting a message on an answerphone – ‘please leave a message when you hear the beep’ – and also perhaps to ‘pip’. The beginning of Great Expectations suggests that ‘pip’ is heard as a kind of elementary phoneme, to signify the most basic kind of locution: ‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.’

Blip was the title of a video games magazine published by Marvel Comics from 1983, which included regular ‘Blip Tips’ to ‘improve your scores with video games’.

Paul Muldoon restores the image to actuality in ‘The Unicorn Defends Itself’:

Once you swallowed a radar-blip
of peyote
you were out of your tree (Muldoon 1996, 77)

The development of radar seems to have effected a shoft from the auditory to the visual in the understanding of blips. From 1945, a blip was an abrupt jump in a graphical trace. The reference to radar is often retained in contemporary uses of the word – as in ‘a blip on the radar’ – but the suggestion is often more generally of a sudden variation, sharp but short-lived, in otherwise stable conditions, as represented by a jump or spike in a graph. The word may be regarded as a audio-visual compound, formed from the common experience of electronic displays which accompany visual traces with sound. In medical monitors, the blip is often the representation of the pulse, so therefore of a normal, stable state, rather than of a temporary aberration from it (this latter would be signalled by the ‘flatline’). In films, you know you are in a submarine because of the regular pattern of blips such craft invariably and unaccountably emit when submerged.

 

References

Muldoon, Paul (1996). New Selected Poems 1968-1994. London: Faber and Faber.

Twain, Mark (1894). Tom Sawyer Abroad, By Huck Finn. Edited by Mark Twain. New York: Charles L. Webster and Co.

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Literature Technology Media Reading Group

Beginning this term, LTM will be hosting a reading group on the history and theory of media and technology. In Michaelmas, the reading group will explore some of LTM’s interests by examining an international cross-section of recent work in these fields, beginning with German media theory and the French philosophy of technology. All are welcome, and no prior experience with the topic is necessary. Readings will be distributed via email before each session. If you have any questions about the group, or if you wish to suggest texts for us to look at in future sessions, please contact Nathaniel Zetter (nmz21@cam.ac.uk).

The schedule for Michaelmas will be as follows:

3S, Weeks 3, 5, & 7, Wed.4.30, English Faculty Board Room

Session 1: Wednesday, 26 October 2016, 4:30-6, English Faculty Boardroom.
Nathaniel Zetter will introduce:
Friedrich Kittler, ‘Computer Graphics: A Semi-Technical Introduction’, Grey Room 2 (2001): 30-45.
Bernhard Siegert, ‘The Chorein of the Pirate: On the Origin of the Dutch Seascape’, Grey Room 57 (2014): 6-23.

Session 2: Wednesday, 9 November 2016, 4:30-6, English Faculty Board Room.
Steven Connor will introduce:
Bernard Stiegler, ‘General Introduction’, in Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford University Press, 1998).

Session 3
Wednesday, 23 November 2016, 4:30-6, English Faculty Board Room. [Reading TBC.]

 

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Literature Technology Media Conference October 2016

Saturday 15th October 2016
Faculty of English, Cambridge: Room GR05
Programme

9.30 Welcome and Introduction
David Trotter, ‘Media Theory Now: A Very Brief Introduction Indeed’
Steven Connor, ‘The Question concerning Technography’

10.15 Coffee break

10.30 Session 2: Vision
Chair: Steve Connor

Sarah Haggarty, ‘Point and line in Newton and Blake’
Jenny Wallace, ‘Photography and Classical Reception’

12.00 Lunch break

12.45 Session 3: Print Culture and Beyond
Chair: Sarah Dillon
Jessica Lim, : ‘Improved by Cuts’: Implied Reading Practices and Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Books for Children’
Sarah Meer, ‘Bloomers in Bleak House: Serialisation in Harper’s and Frederick Douglass’s Paper’
Nathaniel Zetter, ‘Engineering Problems: The Place of Literature Within Information Theory’

2.15 Coffee break

2.30 Session 4: Science and Technology
Chair: Ned Allen

Ewan Jones, ‘Thermodynamic Rhythm/The Poetics of Waste’
Drew Milne, ‘Ideology under the Microtome: Prosthetic Insight and Literary Blindness’

3.30 CLOSE

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What Is Technography?

Technography may be defined at its simplest through the spelling out of its elements, Greek τεχνο– and -γραϕία: thus, technography is the writing of technology. In its earliest uses, in classical and Hellenistic writing, the word referred to a technical treatise on rhetoric, with Aristotle’s Rhetoric to Alexander and Rhetoric being described as the two earliest examples (Kraus 2011: 279). This is still the sense in which the word ‘technography’ is employed by historians of rhetoric (Heath 2004). ‘Technography’ has been used to mean the technical language employed by a particular profession, as in a 1920 reference in a discussion of silver candlesticks in the Burlington Magazine to ‘silver mountings as they are called in the technography of the trade’ (Veitch 1920: 18). In 1963, H.C. McDaniel, an ex-president of the Society for Technical Writers and Professionals, proposed the word technography as ‘the generic descriptor encompassing all the functions normally associated with technical writing, editing, illustrating, publishing and allied operations’ (Galasso 1963: 23). The SWTP Review, the house journal of the Society of Technical Writers and Professionals was accordingly subtitled The Journal of Technography for some years.

Douglas Kahn’s use of the term (2004) to describe his study of the use of technology in the work of composer John Bischoff marks a shift to the idea of technography as an historical account of a technology. In 2007, Greenwood Press released fourteen volumes of what it called Technographies, each subtitled The Life Story of a Technology. The series, which included volumes on the railway, firearms, the car, the radio and the book aimed to provide something like a human biography, each volume outlining ‘the artifact’s antecedents or “family” background, its “youthful” development, subsequent maturation, and either its eventual absorption into ubiquitous societal adoption or its decline and obsolescence’ (Cutliffe 2007: 165).

The word has been put to work in sociological and ethnographic writing. Steve Woolgar employs the word technography to describe a method ‘to tease out the congealed social relations embodied in technology’ (Woolgar 1998: 444). The anthropologist Paul Richards introduced the term during the 1980s in his work on farming methods employed by indigenous West African peoples. In his introduction to an issue of the journal Qualitative Inquiry in 2008, Grant Kien defined the word as ‘Technology + Ethnography’ (Kien 2008: 1101), and it has more recently been used to refer to ‘the study of technoculture in everyday life’ (Vannini, Hodson and Vannini 2009: 462) and ‘the detailed study of the use of skills, tools, knowledge and techniques in everyday life’ (Jansen and Vellema 2011: 169).

The term had also been revived by the theorist of game and play Bernard DeKoven in the 1980s to mean a kind of computer-mediated collective writing – something that has become common practice (Ball n.d.). Paul A. Harris used the term in 1997 to refer to the kind of technologised writing developed by the writers associated with Oulipo, which made particular use of the mathematical diagram (Harris 1997). Technography therefore seems to involve a kind of oscillation of positions, not to say specifically of prepositions, with regard to the technical, in which writing of techne can switch into the writing in or through techne. James Purdon derives his notion of technography from ‘a union of the material and the symbolic [which] is ingrained within the concept of technology itself from the earliest times’ (Purdon 2016). His interest is in the ways in which discourse attaches to machines and mechanisms, and ‘a specific kind of discourse which prioritizes an awareness of the process of its own mediation; a kind of writing which seeks to bring to consciousness the technicity of text and the textuality of technics; the kind of writing which we have sometimes been inclined to call literature, but which encompasses symbolic operations – techniques or indeed technics – across many media forms’ (Purdon 2016). Steven Connor’s definition of technography, as ‘any writing about any technology that implicates or is attuned to the technological condition of its own writing’, is in accord with this. In this respect, technography is not just one mode or mood of literary writing; rather all the writing we tend to call literary must be regarded as technographic, in that it is ‘the engineering in writing of the particular kind of engine of writing it aims at being. So modern literary writing is ever more technographic, not in the simple sense that it is concerned with other kinds of machinery, but in the sense that it is ever more taken up with the kind of machinery that it itself is’ (Connor 2016: 18)

But, as Purdon observes, while ‘writing is technological, through and through, technology is also written, through and through’ (Purdon 2016). Technography therefore ‘seeks to bring us back to that symbiosis of the technical and the symbolic that is written into the idea of technology from the beginning’. It is ‘less a method than a resistance to settling at one or other end of the object-discourse axis’ (Purdon 2016). Sean Pryor and David Trotter accordingly define technography as ‘a reflection upon the varying degrees to which all technologies have in some fashion been written into being’. But reversibility is again apparent in technography, in that it is attuned not only to the ways in which technologies are written, but also to the ways in which they in themselves constitute styles, or kinds of writing.  As such, technographies ‘attend equally to the rhetoric sedimented in machines, to machines behaving rhetorically, to rhetoric that behaves mechanically, and to rhetoric behaving in pointed opposition to mechanism’ (Pryor and Trotter 2016: 16). As James Purdon concludes, ‘[t]echnography does not presuppose where, if anywhere, text begins, and the machine stops’. Technography encourages an awareness of the different ways in which every technology may be thought of as textual, and all machines as kinds of media. Steven Connor distinguishes one of the ways in which this may be understood:

If all writing is a kind of machinery, why might it be plausible to see every machine as a kind of writing? Because every mechanical or technical action can be seen as a procedure as well as a mere proceeding, where a procedure means a replicable operation. So a technical procedure is the styling of a process and, as such, the declarative performance of that process as iterable procedure. Every machine declares of what it does: ‘this is the way this action may be performed’. A technic, or technical procedure, is a writing in that it tracks its own technique, following in its own tracks. (Connor 2016: 18)

References

Ball, Geoff. n.d. ‘Technography.’ Online at http://www.geoffballfacilitator.com/technography.html

Connor, Steven. 2016. ‘How to do Things with Writing Machines.’ In Writing, Medium, Machine: Modern Technographies, edited by Sean Pryor and David Trotter, 18-34. London: Open Humanities Press. Online at http://stevenconnor.com/writingmachines.html

Cutliffe, Stephen H. 2007. ‘The Greenwood Technographies: Life Stories of Technologies’. Technology and Culture, 48: 165-68.

Galasso, Joseph A. 1963. ‘What’s In a Name.’ STWP Review, 10: 23-24.

Harris, Paul A. 1997. ‘Exploring Technographies: Chaos Diagrams and Oulipian Writing as Virtual Signs.’ In Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology, edited by Joseph Tabbi and Michael Wutz, 136-53. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Heath, Malcolm. 2004. ‘Technography’. In Menander: A Rhetor in Context, 255-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jansen, Kees and Sietze Vellema. 2011. ‘What Is Technography?’ NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 57: 169–177.

Kahn, Douglas. 2004. ‘A Musical Technography of John Bischoff’. Leonardo Music Journal, 14: 74-79.

Kien, Grant. 2008. ‘Technography = Technology + Ethnography’. Qualitative Inquiry, 14: 1101-1109.

Kraus, Manfred. 2011. ‘How to Classify Means of Persuasion: The Rhetoric to Alexander and Aristotle on Pisteis’. Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, 29: 263-79.

Pryor, Sean and David Trotter. 2016. ‘Introduction.’ In Writing, Medium, Machine: Modern Technographies, edited by Sean Pryor and David Trotter, 7-17. London: Open Humanities Press.

Purdon, James. 2016. ‘Texts, Technics, Technographies.’ Unpublished lecture, given at the TextTechniques workshop, Universität Erfurt, 13th January

Veitch, Henry Newton. 1920. ‘Sheffield Plate-II’. Burlington Magazine, 37: 18-21, 24-27.

Woolgar, Steve. 1998. ‘A New Theory of Innovation?’ Prometheus, 16, 441-52.

 

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Gadget

A gadget is a name for any device or piece of equipment. There is something diminutive about a gadget, which will often be characterised as ‘little’, as in a ‘nice little gadget’. It does not have a very long history, seeming not to have been in use much before 1870. Gadgets can sometimes be machines that stand alone, but for the most part have the sense of attachments, or things joined on to other things. One suggestion for the origin of the word is French gâchette, a diminutive of gâche staple (of a lock), wall-staple or hook, which may be related to French engager, or the dialect French word gagée meaning tool or instrument. The earliest uses seem to have been maritime: Kipling uses the word in the compound form steam-gadget several times in his rendering of maritime slang in Traffics and Discoveries (Kipling 1904, 57, 107, 179). Gadget was in use in 1918 as a technical term in glass-making to refer to a spring-clip attached to the foot of a glass to hold it while it is being shaped. Some of the software uses of the word gadget recall this idea of an accessory or adjunct, since gadgets, like widgets, are add-ons, sometimes in sidebars. There is a certain kind of approximative feel in the word gadget, suggesting something novel, nonce or improvised – in the 1936 car-racing film Speed, one of the mechanics has the nickname ‘Gadget’.

So as well as being a name for something added on, there is something supplementary in the name itself, which is often employed as a placeholder word standing for something more specific, this being a common feature of technical vocabularies of different kinds. Maurice H. Weseen’s Dictionary of American Slang defines widget as ‘an indefinite substitute name for any appliance or device’ (Weseen 1934, 419). This substitutive idea is apparent in the earliest appearance of the word in print, in a maritime memoir by Robert Brown:

Then the names of all the other things on board a ship! I don’t know half of them yet; even the sailors forget at times, and if the exact name of anything they want happens to slip from their memory, they call it a chicken-fixing, or a gadjet, or a gill-guy, or a timmey-noggy, or a wim-wom — just pro tem., you know” (Brown 1886, 378)

‘The Gadget’ was deliberately used in place of the word ‘bomb’ during the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. Appropriately, then, the word gadget has been subject to a certain gadgeting process, in the development of supplementary terms like ‘gadgetry’ (first OED citation from 1920), and ‘gadgeteer’, first citation from the Reader’s Digest in 1938. Gadget has a family relation to the word gizmo and has seemingly exerted some pressure on the word widget, which sounds as though it might be a weeny or midget sort of gadget, which was originally a word used for a device inserted in a can of beer to make it foam.

The slightly comic oddity that attaches to the gadget has made for an association with the absurd and gratuitous in technology. The word seems to have come into its own in the era of highly-personalised digital appliances and applications of those appliances. As William Merrin suggests

At its best it was associated with labor-saving, invention, and innovation – suggesting a trouble-free life, realized through the creation of new devices to remove the problems and annoyances of daily life and labor. At its worst it was associated with inflated claims, unclear needs, dubious provenance or amateurish origin, suspect lasting value, and cheap gimmickry and novelty. Hence “the gadget” came to represent both the leading wave of technical invention (and the promised future of its perfected, everyday evolution) and something darker – sidetracks and dead ends off that evolutionary line. (Merrin 2014, 6)

Steven Connor

References

Brown, Robert (1886). Spunyarn and Spindrift: A Sailor Boy’s Log of a Voyage Out and Home in a China Tea-Clipper. London: Houlston and Sons. Online at https://archive.org/details/spunyarnspindrif00brow

Kipling, Rudyard (1904). Traffics and Discoveries. London: Macmillan and Co. Online at https://archive.org/details/trafficsdiscover00kipluoft

Lennon, Brian (2005). ‘Misunderstanding Media: The Bomb and Bad Translation.’ Criticism, 47, 283-300

Merrin, William (2014). ‘The Rise of the Gadget and Hyperludic Media.’ Cultural Politics, 10, 1-20

Simeone, Michael (2011). ‘Why We Will Not Be Posthuman: Gadgets as a Technocultural Form.’ Configurations, 19, 333-56.

Weseen, Maurice H. (1934). A Dictionary of American Slang. London: George G. Harrap and Co.

Genie Gadgets: https://www.geniegadgets.com/help/gadgets-info/

World Wide Words: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-gad1.htm

The Gadget, the First Atomic Bomb, 1945. Online at http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/gadget-first-atomic-bomb/

 

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Packet

Packet

‘A unit of data for transmission; a group of bits of fixed maximum size and well-defined format that is switched and transmitted as a composite whole through a packet-switching network, any message exceeding the maximum size being partitioned and carried as several packets’ (OED).

The idea of the packet testifies to the priority of form over content in communication. Telecommunication, in particular, is best approached from the point of view of the system, rather than from that of the individual user.

The term itself is remarkable for the sheer consistency of its usage. Messages have always been transmitted over great distances as groups of bits. Since at least the seventeenth-century, ‘packet-boats’ have crossed and re-crossed the seven seas with the primary if not sole purpose of conveying documents of various kinds bundled up into packets.

Byron had a lot of fun improvising rhymes within the constraints of, and with the urgency required by, such acts of bundling up. This is the first stanza of ‘Lines to Mr Hodgson Written on Board the Lisbon Packet’.

Huzza! Hodgson, we are going,
Our embargo’s off at last;
Favourable breezes blowing
Bend the canvass o’er the mast.
From aloft the signal’s streaming,
Hark! the farewell gun is fir’d;
Women screeching, tars blaspheming,
Tell us that our time’s expir’d.
Here’s a rascal
Come to task all,
Prying from the custom-house;
Trunks unpacking
Cases cracking,
Not a corner for a mouse
‘Scapes unsearch’d amid the racket,
Ere we sail on board the Packet.

The unbundling and re-bundling of trunks and cases is felt as an unbundling and re-bundling of the person whose possessions they contain. The packet-boat’s reluctance to distinguish between people and containers (the people being accommodated courtesy of the containers, rather than the other way round) soon gave rise to gloomier speculations. ‘The railroad is in all its relations a matter of earnest business,’ John Ruskin complained in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1854), ‘to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man from a traveller into a living parcel.’ Ruskin’s parcel contains a single item. In earlier use, however, the term was much closer to packet, with the emphasis on its containment or bundling up of a variety of items. Ruskin, at any rate, soon began to think of the traveller as a group of bits in a rather different – but, I would argue, compatible – sense. Travelling by rail, he announced in the third volume of Modern Painters, in 1856, does not amount to anything you could really call travel at all: ‘it is merely “being sent” to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel; the next step to it would of course be telegraphic transport.’

More recently still, it’s possible to discern a degree of anxiety attaching to the process of packaging involved in telecommunication. There are, as William J. Mitchell puts it, bad bites as well as good ones.

‘The co-ordinates propagated by my wireless devices invite electronic tracking and surveillance. The technology that so precisely guides my automobile to a specified urban location can also guide a missile or a smart bomb. And increasingly, the containers that now speed through the links we have so carefully constructed – from packets on the Internet to the cabins of jetliners – are not only subject to physical hijacking but also to electronic hacking, militarization, re-engineering, re-programming, and being re-combined, re-directed, and turned against us’ (Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, p. 5).

We’re perhaps back in the vicinity of an enduring colloquialism. Since the First World War, to cop a packet has meant to get in the way of a bullet (or a missile guided by the technologies which also guide automobiles). As someone says in Dorothy Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise (1933): ‘I’m really fearfully sorry you copped that packet that was meant for me.’

David Trotter

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Technicon

Technicon: towards a cultural semantics of informational terms

The English Faculty’s Literature-Technology-Media research group proposes to develop, in the first instance as a online resource, a lexicon of terminology arising out of or associated with information technologies and social media. This will be a collaborative research project, with each term in the lexicon allocated to an individual or small team. Rather than constituting a complete essay in itself, each entry will remain open for the foreseeable future for correction and supplement, where appropriate. A Notes & Queries function will enable researchers to draw upon the expertise of the group as a whole.

Each entry, in short, will originate as a stub (a term which itself belongs in the Technicon, if only because its contemporary meaning seems to have derived from the obsolete botanical sense of a stock from grafting on, rather than from its more familiar association with the remnants of a cigarette).
Anyone who would be interested in participating in this project is invited to contact Ned Allen (ejfa2@cam.ac.uk), David Trotter (wdt21@cam.ac.uk), or Steve Connor (skc45@cam.ac.uk).

What is a ‘Technicon’?
The terminology of IT and social media has become a language as natural as any other. It confronts us at every step of the way as we negotiate the systems and devices that occupy so many of our waking moments, or try to figure out how to do stuff with them, or gaze helplessly at evidence of malfunction. If we happen to want to know what one of these terms actually means, there are of course dictionaries, Wikipedia entries, and a whole range of expository tools, in print and online. If it’s deconstruction we want, we can turn to the excellent Software Studies: A Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), or to one of the many recent enquiries into the ramifications of networked communications technology in everyday life.

What none of these resources claims to do is to breathe life back into dead language, so that we return to our systems and devices with an enhanced sense not only of what they do, but also of the rhetoric sedimented in the machine: the writing that helped to bring the technology about, and still colours our attitude towards it, our feelings for it.

Technicon is to a large extent an exercise in the resuscitation of dead metaphor. The aim is to restore to informational jargon something of its richness, as a way to know more both about what we mean when we think and talk informationally in the course of business and pleasure; and about the past, present, and future of the information technologies the jargon services. Some terms reveal the history of the displacement of human by mechanical operation, or of mechanical energy by data-flows. Others were already informational long before they came anywhere near a computer, reminding us that information technologies and social (in the broadest sense) media are age-old. In order to capture these evolutions, a cultural semantics will need to be in addition a cultural pragmatics: a history of what words do, as well as what they mean. And it will need, too, even more so, to be a poetics: a study of figural as well as literal usage. The forms it takes will include both the critical and the creative.

The terms listed below are all terms which had a life of some kind, in whole or in part, before digitalization. Trade names have been excluded.

A Provisional and Selective List of Terms of Interest

Aliasing
Analog
Archive
Artefact
Avatar
Bit
Blog (via Weblog: the ‘log’ bit of it worth exploring?)
Bug
Buffer
Button
Cloud
Code
Computer
Cookies
Digital
Drive
Emoji
Emoticon
Flash
Format
Glitch
Hardware
Hashtag
Icon
Interface
Jaggies
Joystick
Like
List
Loading
Login
Medium
Mining
Network
Packet
Periscope
Ping
Platform
Portal
Programme
Raster
Server
Social
Software
Stub
System
Tag
Toggle
Troll
Tweet
Virtual
Virus
Vlog (see Blog)
Web
Wetware
Window

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Technological Object: Polygraph

John Hawkins's Polygraph

John Hawkins’s Polygraph

In its relation to words like ‘copious’ and ‘cornucopia’, the word ‘copy’ still harbours the suggestion of spilling abundance. But the almost demonic ease in which copies – of texts, images, objects, melodies – may now be made and archived forms a sharp contrast with the considerable application of labour, whether in the scriptorium or the artist’s studio, that the production of copies has required in previous centuries. Just as the pyramids could not have been built without the muscle-power of slaves, so the huge expansion of government and private bureaucracy from the early nineteenth century onwards demanded and itself reproduced a huge army of clerks who toiled at the work of making and keeping copies of documents, giving rise to ailments like ‘scrivener’s palsy’. During the nineteenth century, the figure of the clerk haunts the writer as his spectral parody, in a tradition that runs through Melville, Dickens and Kafka through to Truman Capote’s remark about Jack Kerouac that ‘that’s not writing, that’s typing’. This tradition is inaugurated perhaps by ‘The Superannuated Man’ in 1825, (Lamb 2003, 64- 70), in which Charles Lamb describes the emancipation of a man who has spent decades copying others’ words – like Lamb himself, who worked in the Accountant’s Office of the British East India Company for 36 years.

The most familiar form of automated textual reproduction at the beginning of the nineteenth century was, of course the printing press, but this offered economies in reproduction time only on large scale. These economies became available in the home and office for the first time in the form of the carbon copy, patented by Ralph Wedgewood in 1806 as part of the apparatus he called a ‘Stylographic Writer’. This would be the principal method for copying documents, especially those produced by the typewriter from the 1870s, for more than a century, until the arrival of automated copying technologies after the Second World War. The polygraph was briefly a rival to carbon paper in what a writer of 1807 called the ‘modes of Manifold writing’ (Lyman 1807).

The principles of the polygraph were established in devices developed for the copying not of written documents but rather of images and plans. The first of these, known as a pantograph, was developed by Christoph Scheiner in 1603, and described in his Pantographice seu Ars delineandi res quaslibet per parallelogrammum lineare seu cavum (1631). In this, a stylus was connected by an adjustable parallelogram to a pencil; when the stylus was moved around the outlines of an image, the pencil produced a replica image on another surface. One conspicuous advantage of the pantograph over a one-to-one tracing was that adjustment of the angle of compression of the mediating parallelogram allowed for adjustments of scale in the copy. In a sense the pantograph provides nothing more than a displaced tracing, though the principle is still at work in a large number of processes that employ one-to-one mimicry of analogue movements: including the automatic copying of phonograph records, remote-control devices of all kinds, motion capture in cinema and even the operations of the computer mouse (I remember having to explain to a new computer user in the 1990s that ‘moving the mouse around the screen’ did not require holding it up to the glass).

The pantograph was adapted to the copying of handwriting in a patent applied for in 1647 for by the young William Petty, founder member of the Royal Society and later a developer of the science of ‘political arithmetic’, and also, very likely, a spy in the service of Charles I. Petty’s application made reference to ‘an Instrument of small bulk and price, easily made, and very durable, whereby one may in an houres practice, write two Copies of the same thing at once, with great advantage above the ordinary way’ (Petty 1648, n.p.), though alas he did not describe it in any detail nor provide an illustration.  In 1762, the Count Leopold von Niepperburg of Vienna developed a handwriting-duplication machine that allowed two or three copies to be made simultaneously (Wershler-Henry 2005, 36). In 1783-4, a device named the ‘physiognotrace’ was invented by Gilles-Louis Chrétien, which allowed one to make a copy of an outline drawn round a silhouette. In 1799 Marc Isambard Brunel was granted patents in America and Britain for ‘a certain new and useful Writing and Drawing Machine, by which two or more Writings or Drawings, resembling each other, may be made by the same Person at the same Time’ (Anon 1800, 153). An American patent was granted four years later to a similar device made by John Isaac Hawkins, who worked to develop it with Charles Willson Peale, an artist, inventor and director of the American Museum in Philadelphia. Hawkins used the principle of the physiognotrace to construct a polygraph, or machine for simultaneous duplication of writing, for which he sold the American rights to Peale before returning to his native England.

Marc Isambard Brunel, Writing and Drawing Machine, Repertory of Arts, Manufactures and Agriculture, 1800

Marc Isambard Brunel, Writing and Drawing Machine, Repertory of Arts, Manufactures and Agriculture, 1800

The most well-known and enthusiastic user of the Hawkins-Peale polygraph was Thomas Jefferson, who served two terms as US President from 1801-9. Jefferson not only used the machine for over 20 years until his death in 1826, producing almost 20,000 copies of letters, he also engaged in extended correspondence with Peale about the maintenance and improvement of the device. Jefferson’s letters to Peale are themselves an autographic phenomenon, worthy of an illustration by Escher. The polygraph is both subject and object of the writing, as letter after letter, inscribed using the device, grapples with the irritations and inconveniences of its design and proposes alternatives. Jefferson often resorts to sketches of the improved versions of the machine he has in mind, and uses his letters to explicate the models he had constructed by his own workmen to embody his own ideas for improvement. The polygraph is a machine in the making, writing going hand in glove with wrighting. Like the self-evolving ‘knitting machine’ of evolution that Joseph Conrad would evoke in a letter of 1897, that ‘has made itself without thought’ (Conrad 1983, 425), the Jefferson-Peale polygraph was autobiographically employed in writing out its own form, or rather forms, for these were plural, including different designs, portable and desk versions, and even an octavo version made in 1804 for the duplication of ladies’ notes. Much of his polygraphically-produced correspondence with Peale is taken up with planning and plotting the movements of these various machines, by land and sea, between Philadelphia, Washington and Virginia.

Though the principle of the polygraph was extremely simple in practice it proved fiendishly difficult to produce a mechanism that could reliably transmit all the subtle variations of speed, pressure and rapid fluctuations of lifting and resumption involved in handwriting, and maintain the perfectly flat writing surface required for successful transcription: Jefferson wrote in 1806 that ‘I have safely received my Polygraph, with which I am now writing, and find it to answer well everywhere except a small place in the N. W. corner’ (Sellers 1904, 309). Not the least of the difficulties with which Jefferson and Peale grappled was the synchronisation of the inkwell-dipping required to keep the traditional quills favoured by Jefferson charged with ink. If ‘organically coherent handwriting’ was, as Friedrich Kittler has argued, at the centre of the ‘discourse network’ of 1800, as the means whereby the soul could inscribe itself directly on to the page (Kittler 1990, 82), then this kind of Aufschreibesystem, or ‘writing-down system’, the phrase of Daniel Paul Schreber which ‘discourse network’ rather distantly renders, is not so much the ghost in the machine as the machine at the ghost-writer’s fingertips.

Jefferson's spare parts kit for his polygraph

Jefferson’s spare parts kit for his polygraph

The polygraph was in every sense a technographic manifestation. For all its tricky, infuriating, fascinating materiality, perhaps the polygraph was always going to exist more fully in graphic than material form. And indeed, even the continued sponsorship and earnest endorsement of the US President, who called it ‘the finest invention of the present age’ (Bedini 1984, 147), was not enough to build a significant market for the polygraph. Peale only ever sold 60, and even John Hawkins, who got up to 150 sales in Britain (Bedini 1984, 187) made little impact. Only two complete polygraphs remain in existence, one in Jefferson’s Monticello house, the other in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and the latter seems also to have been owned by Jefferson (Bedini 1984, 183). This may have been in part because of the competition represented by versions of James Watt’s method of taking copies instantly by means of special papers and inks combined with a press, or Ralph Wedgewood’s ‘stylograph’, system incorporating ‘carbonated paper’, patented in 1806. Jefferson was convinced that Wedgewood’s messy system would never rival the polygraph, writing to Peale in 1807 that

Further trial of the Stylograph convinces me it can never take the place of the Polygraph but with travelers, as it is so much more portable. The fetid smell of the copying paper would render a room pestiferous if filled with presses of such papers’ (Sellers 1904, 312).

The failure of the polygraph to be widely adopted, even in government offices, may also have been because of the very feature of the polygraph that made Jefferson so devoted to it, namely that it required such constant, vigilant attention to its workings and maintenance. Jefferson reassured Edward Preble, in a letter accompanying a gift of a polygraph of 1805, that ‘[y]our turn for mechanics will render pleasing to you those little attentions necessary in the use of the instrument’ (quoted, Bedini 1984, 119). But not every user had the same turn for mechanics as the gadgeteer President, who alternated his reflections on the polygraph with discussions of ploughing techniques and inventions, interleaving page and pagus (Sellers 1904, 404-5). The more Peale and Jefferson toiled together to perfect the fiddly and capricious machine, the more Peale’s advertisements assured customers of its simplicity and reliability, promising that ‘[t]he merit of the Machinery consists in its extreme simplicity, and therefore requiring [sic] little care to keep in order’ (quoted, Bedini 1984, 152), and that the device could be operated by the ‘feeblest female hand’ (quoted, Bedini 1984, 99).

Perhaps, from the point of view of the tinker-addicted Jefferson, the very sensitivity and capriciousness of the machine was a proof of its fitness for the delicate task of ensuring that ‘obedient pens in concert move’, as a versified advertisement by Peale’s son Rembrandt declared in 1804 (quoted, Bedini 1984, 82). Jefferson lived and worked so long hand in hand with the polygraph that it seemed to shadow his own aging and ailments. In 1822, he wrote that ‘after 12 or 14 years of hard service it has failed in nothing except the spiral springs of silver wire which suspend the pen frame. These are all but disabled, and my fingers are too clumsy to venture to rectify them, were they susceptible of it’ (Sellers 1904, 414-5). 3 years later, in 1825, Jefferson again had occasion to notice the coupled caducity of machine and operator:

The excellent Polygraph you furnished me with 16 or 18 years ago has continued to perform its functions well till within a 12 month past. By the mere wearing of its joints, as I suppose, it became at last so rickety that I was obliged to give it up; and believing nobody but yourself could put it to rights, I have held it up for a safe hand to whom I could trust its transportation to you. (Sellers 1904, 417-18)

The word ‘polygraph’ underwent the same oscillations between operator and mechanism as later words like ‘typewriter’ and ‘computer’. The word ‘polygraphus’ was adapted from Latin to mean ‘one that has wrote many Books, one that writes much’ (Arrol 1750, 297). In a letter of 1791, Friedrich von Matthisson compared the choice output of Thomas Gray favourably to that of ‘the Polygraph of Ferney [Voltaire] with his seventy volumes’  (Matthisson 1799, 208). By the 1790s, the idea of a device that would create an exact facsimile had led to the common usage of the word ‘polygraph’ to mean a mimic or physical double of a person. Coleridge uses the word in this sense in a letter of December 1794 to Robert Southey, in which he remarks, of a sonnet of his own in praise of Sheridan, ‘[t]he mode of bepraising a man by enumerating the beauties of his  Polygraph is at least an original one’ (Coleridge 2000, I.141) . In Hannah Cowley’s 1795 play The Town Before You, a character boasts that he has been able to dine regularly on the strength of his likeness to Lord Beechgrove, and his interlocutor agrees that ‘[t]he resemblance is astonishing – they call you his polygraph’ (Cowley 1795, 18). In Mary Robinson’s novel Walsingham (1797), the young Lord Kencarth boats of having two polygraphs, explaining that this means ‘a fellow that apes one’s dress and manners as close as one’s shadow: one that is up to all our gossip; is sick, lame, blind, gay, grave, in and out of condition, in imitation of his prototype’ (Robinson 1797, 10).

After the polygraph fell out of use, or perhaps because it never really fell into it, the unemployed word was requisitioned during the nineteenth century to describe other kinds of automated transcription. The polygraph had reproduced not just the words consciously framed by the writer, but also the bodily form or event of that framing, complete with all the signs of deliberation, agitation or haste. As Hillel Schwartz writes, ‘[t]he polygraph made of the human body itself a working model of fair, accurate, indelible transcription’ (Schwartz 2014, 189). In not only duplicating content, but also transcribing gesture and performance, the polygraph anticipated the power of the telephone to bundle up the contingent textures of intonation with the import of an utterance. The nervous twitches and scribbles of the polygraph trace out a kind of visual auscultation, as alive to all the forms of gestural noise in the life of the body as the telephone, phonograph and microphone were to all the noisy accidents of the breath and voice. It was this capacity of the polygraph to convey the ‘signatures’ of bodily processes that led during the 1870s to the adoption of the word ‘polygraph’ for devices that recorded traces of different bodily functions. The name proved adaptable to these new systems not because they produced multiple copies of the same message, but because they allowed for the graphing and collation of several different streams of bodily information simultaneously – pulse, respiration, blood-pressure, skin-conductivity. The lie-detecting polygraph was developed for forensic use by John August Larson in 1921, though names like the ‘emotograph’ and ‘respondograph’ were tried out by rivals (Alder 2007, 80). Larson himself proposed to call his machine the ‘cardio-pneumo-psychogram’ (Larson 1922). The lie-detecting polygraph disjoins the voluntary from the involuntary writing of the dissimulator. This new use of the word reactivated an earlier association of the word ‘polygraph’ with coded or secret messages, especially in the manual of cryptographic method entitled Polygraphiae published by the German occultist Johannes Trithemius in 1518. A technology designed obediently to mirror the self-knowing and self-inscribing subject, ensuring a kind of scriptive self-possession, becomes an instrument for registering the subject’s polygraphic plurality.

Leonarde_Keeler_1937

Leonarde Keeler testing his lie-detector on Dr. Kohler, a former witness for the prosecution at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann.

References

Alder, Ken (2007). The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession. New York: Free Press.

Anon (1800) ‘Specification of the Patent granted to Mr. MARC ISAMBARD BRUNEL, of Canterbury-Place, in the Parish of St. Mary, Lambeth, in the County of Surrey, Gcntleman; for his ¡nvention of a certain new and useful Writing and Drawing Machine, by which two or more Writings or Drawings, resembling each other, may be made by the same Person at the same Time.’ Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agricultures, 13, 153-62

Arrol, Robert (1750). Erasmi colloquia selecta: Or, The select colloquies of Erasmus. With an English translation as literal as possible: and a large vocabulary, designed for the use of beginners in the Latin tongue. Edinburgh: Robert Fleming.

Bedini, Silvio A. (1984). Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (2000). Collected Letters: Vol. 1. Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs. 6 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Conrad, Joseph (1983). Collected Letters. Vol. 1: 1861-1897. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cowley, Hannah (1795). The Town Before You: A Comedy. Dublin: for P. Wogan, P. Byrne, J. Moore, W. Jones, J. Rice, and G. Folingsby.

Kittler, Friedrich A. (1990). Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lamb, Charles (2003). Selected Writings. Ed. J.E. Morpurgo. London: Routledge.

Larson, John A. (1922). ‘The Cardio-Pneumo-Psychogram and Its Use in the Study of the Emotions, with Practical Application.’ Journal of Experimental Psychology, 5, 323-28.

Lyman, William (1807). Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 11th July. Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers. Online at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib017397

Matthisson, Friedrich von (1799). Letters Written from Various Parts of the Continent, Between the Years 1785 and 1794. Trans. Anne Plumptre. London: T.N. Longman and O. Rees.

Petty, William (1648). Double Writing. London: no publisher.

Robinson, Mary (1797). Walsingham, or, The Pupil of Nature: A Domestic Story. London: T.N. Longman.

Scheiner, Christoph (1631). Pantographice seu Ars delineandi res quaslibet per parallelogrammum lineare seu cavum. Rome: L. Grignani.

Schwartz, Hillel (2014). The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. 2nd edn. New York: Zone Books.

Sellers, Horace W., ed. (1904). ‘Letters of Thomas Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale, 1796-1825.’ Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 28, 136-54, 295-319, 403-19.

Trithemius, Johannes (1518). Polygraphiae libri sex. Oppenheim: Johann Haselberg.

Wershler-Henry, Darren (2007). The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

—Steven Connor

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Technological Object: MRI Machine

MRI

Siemens’s Magnetom family of Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines all have musical names: Rhapsody, Symphony, Allegra, Sonata, Harmony, Concerto, and the Trio pictured above. Perhaps this tries to gloss over the intimidating sonic assault that awaits the patient. In Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (2007) the experience of MRI for Keith Neudecker, a 9/11 survivor, switches between the soothing music Siemens want us to think about (classical, on his headphones), and magnetic cacophony:

The noise was unbearable, alternating between the banging-shattering sound and an electronic pulse of varied pitch. He listened to the music and thought of what the radiologist had said, that once it’s over, in her Russian accent, you forget instantly the whole experience so how bad can it be, she said, and he thought this sounded like a description of dying.

Through all this sound a voice comes into Keith’s mind: the radiologist’s glib reassurance (with its own rather musical cadence) resonates with his traumatic experience; memory — or forgetting — and death readily associate with one another.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging exerts a kind of brutal power. The Trio earns its name by having a top-of-the-range three-Tesla magnet: 100,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field. Differences in the magnetic resonance of substances in the body are revealed only when we are constrained within the magnet: the coffin comparison, just below the surface of the DeLillo passage, is clumsily obvious. DeLillo’s radiologist is presumably trying to offset a claustrophobic reaction.

On the other hand, MRI is ingenious and subtle. It provides detailed information about the inside of the body without invasion or lasting effects. One modern evolution — functional MRI (fMRI) — reveals what is happening inside the brain because when the neurons in a part of the brain are active, blood flow there increases. Oxygen-rich blood and oxygen-poor blood have different magnetic characteristics. This ‘blood oxygen level dependent’ (BOLD) contrast was discovered by Seiji Ogawa in early 1990; the use of MRI to trace it was first demonstrated in rats, and soon after in humans. There is some debate as to what it really shows, whether blood flow and ‘thinking’ are being associated too readily. The vivid coloured images that result may sell too strongly the idea that there are discrete and identifiable places in the brain that simply are the key components of our humanity.

fMRI has not had long to impinge on literary culture, but even before it was in use writers looked at images of the brain and associated them vividly with a mind and a person. In his memoir Patrimony (1991), Philip Roth depicts himself responding to the brain scans that reveal his father’s fatal cancer:

Alone, when I felt like crying I cried, and I never felt more like it than when I removed from the envelope the series of picture of his brain – and not because I could readily identify the tumor invading the brain but simply because it was his brain, my father’s brain, what prompted him to think the blunt way he thought, speak the emphatic way he spoke, reason the emotional way he reasoned, decide the impulsive way he decided. This was the tissue that had manufactured his set of endless worries and sustained for more than eight decades his stubborn self-discipline, the source of everything that had so frustrated me as his adolescent son.

Roth’s words ‘prompted’, ‘manufactured’, ‘sustained’, and ‘source’ all suggest different relationships between the physical structures of the brain visible in the scan, and the personality of an individual. The mixture of metaphors seems to me an effective way of feeling, rather than thinking, your way through the mind/body problem. What is striking is the intimacy he finds, because in depictions of MRI from the perspective of the patient (as in DeLillo) the experience can be estranging.

There is a memorable MRI moment in Woody Allen’s film Hannah and her Sisters (1986). Allen’s character Mickey Sachs looks very small as he is swallowed into the magnet. The machine seems to vindicate Mickey’s anxiety: if the therapeutic technique makes the body seem so frail, hypochondria seems justified. The moment of the scan can’t be seen online, but there is a clip of the aftermath:

The self-indulgence and self-acceptance that run through this film and others seem a lot darker after recent allegations of sexual abuse made by Allen’s adopted daughter. Nonetheless: there is brilliance in this clip. Everything is set up for a joyous Gene Kelly skip down the road after the good news — there is no brain tumour. The problem is that Woody Allen (or rather, Mickey Sachs) has no moves. The tracking shot and the music are ready for expressive leaps but they don’t come. Cars and trees interrupt the view, and these interruptions in the visual perspective seem to fit the interrupted, not-quite-happening quality of the physical articulacy that the scene seems to want. Soon, as the clip shows, Mickey feels anxious and beleaguered again.

It seems ironic that a technology created by prodigious human ingenuity, dedicated to the deepest possible appreciation of what makes humans work, should make its human beneficiaries seem and feel so small. Some version of this irony, though, may arise to a pretty much clichéd level in many of our interactions with technology. Someone builds a chess computer, which then outperforms the best humans, and allows poor players with cheap software to disparage the world champion: achievement turns to belittlement.

In the case of fMRI, there is philosophical resonance. The technology for investigating the brain, and a theory of how the brain and body and mind relate, aren’t innocent of one another. We may posit a dynamic engagement in the world – an embodied mind, a phenomenological interconnectedness. The machine suggests otherwise. It shadows and realises Plato’s idea, in the Phaedo, of the soul (or the mind) as a prisoner in the body. It imprisons the body in order to illuminate its prisoner:

The lovers of knowledge are conscious that their souls, when philosophy receives them, are simply fastened and glued to their bodies: the soul is only able to view existence through the bars of a prison, and not in her own nature; she is wallowing in the mire of all ignorance.

Perhaps the ready availability of the incarceration metaphor in thinking about the mind and body, and the basic experience of MRI, also helps explain why Siemens chose those musical names. They evoke a beautiful, freeing thought to counter the fear and constraint:

—Raphael Lyne

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Technological Object: Midwifery Manikin

“This was a wooden statue, representing a woman with child, whose belly was of leather, in which a bladder full, perhaps, of small beer, represented the uterus,” quipped the English midwife Elizabeth Nihell in reference to the teaching manikin used by the Scottish man-midwife William Smellie to demonstrate birthing manoeuvres in his courses. “This bladder was stopped with a cork,” added Nihell, “to which was fastened a string of packthread to tap it, occasionally, and demonstrate in a palpable manner the flowing of the red-coloured waters [and] in the middle of the bladder was a wax-doll, to which were given various positions.”

Birthing “statues” like Smellie’s made their way into midwifery classrooms across Enlightenment Europe and served as simulative tools on which aspiring midwives put their skills to the test. These handcrafted “machines” served as stand-ins for expecting mothers and reflected on how eighteenth-century modes of midwifery training embraced a mechanistic view of the body which pervaded the culture of birthing technology. The availability and popularity of these machines owes as much to this mechanistic viewpoint as to the technical achievements of engineers like Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, who perfected self-moving androids that included a flute player and the famous “defecating duck.” Medical practitioners shared an interest in harnessing mechanics to develop technologies for the benefit of their patients and the period saw the emergence of novel machinery like mechanical beds for paralytics.

The popularisation of the teaching “manikin” was the understandable outgrowth of this mechanistic turn in medical technology. By mid-century, these machines were widely adopted by pedagogues to illustrate the geometry of the female pelvis and various birthing positions to eager students. These life-size representations were typically composed of leather, wood, wicker, wax, textiles, plaster, metal, and even human bone. An ivory miniature variant known as the “anatomical Venus” represented a pregnant women with dainty mobile limbs and removable parts resting on a plush pillow and presented in a richly decorated wooden or glass case. In this model, the infant was attached to its mother by a string posing as an umbilical cord. Miniatures were used for diagnostic purposes in Eastern and Western medical traditions, but also for teaching purposes, as is evidenced by a wax Venus for sale that was advertised to midwives by an H. Wessels in London.

Like their miniature counterparts, life-size models of pregnant women were accompanied by infant dolls. These models were described as “phantoms” “manikins,” “(doll-)machines,” “mock-women,” and “dummies.” The sheer number of designations highlights the ambiguity surrounding their construction, use, and relationship to real bodies. The French word “mannequin” derived from the Dutch term “little man” came into use around 1730. It designated an artist’s or tailor’s lay figure employed in textiles and its use in referring to these models underscores their doll- and toy-manufacturing origins. Terms like “automaton” and “machine” depicted the models as mechanical reconstitutions of living prototypes, while “doll-machine” matched the model’s manufacturing history with its mechanistic design. Finally, “phantom” and “mock-woman” revealed questions concerning the ontological and moral status of these models.

For all the ways to describe them, these dummies were never mistaken by their makers or users for “real,” animate women. This did not mean that that their life-like effects, such as mobility in the skull joints of the foetus, were unappreciated. Their artificial status in fact rendered these machines particularly virtuous for the trials and errors of classroom learning: detachable organs and the mechanical touches which mimicked birthing waters offered all the advantages of real-life situations without the mess and unpredictability. What is more, the lifelikeness of the models could easily be adapted or compromised to achieve particular pedagogical aims. The result was that virtually no models featured faces, few had breasts, thigh stumps replaced full legs, and many featured the gravid uterus at the expense of surrounding organs.

The utility and increasing availability of these manikins meant that they became a staple in midwifery classrooms across Europe by mid-century. As they gained in popularity, the finished products exhibited greater naturalism and virtuosity thanks to ongoing design modifications. The German man-midwife G.F. Mohr may have been one of the first to use such teaching aids. He refers to the wood and cardboard pelvises he fashioned as alternatives to natural ones when Church sanctions prevented him from retrieving skeletons from cemeteries. Similarly rudimentary models were described by William Smellie when he travelled in 1739 to Paris to apprentice under the father and son Grégoire whose machine was “no other than a piece of basket-work, containing a real Pelvis covered with black leather, upon which he could not clearly explain the difficulties that occur in turning children.” Another male apprentice offered a comic description of what was probably also the Grégoire model: “Madam is a Piece of Basket-work, covered with a Kind of Silk, in Imitation of her Skin, and appears in her Buff.”

These men were part of a generation of “man-midwives” who were introduced to birthing techniques on doll-machines. Smellie’s Scottish compatriot, the anatomist William Hunter, likewise owed much of his skill in birthing to the time he sojourned in Paris as a medical apprentice. After establishing his practice in London, Hunter commissioned the construction of an iron cast of a full-term uterus as part of a more ambitious multi-media project, which began in 1771 when a heavily pregnant woman perished and her body became available for study. Following its dissection, Hunter ordered a body cast and chalk drawings of the corpse, and engravings were made to illustrate his medical atlas, The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774) (below). The restored original plaster and lead cast depicting “[t]he Child in the womb in its natural situation” is currently on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where portions of Hunter’s collections were transported in 1807.

Plaster and lead were unusual materials for machines intended for day-to-day classroom use. More typical materials are represented in an Italian wooden box-like model with upholstered components that typically featured in French teaching dummies. The distribution of textile-based machines across rural France was achieved largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Mme du Coudray, who was appointed King Louis XVI’s midwife in 1759. During her nearly twenty five year “mission,” she trained over four thousand female and male midwives using what she called the “machine” she had perfected (below). The English woman of letters Ann Thicknesse applauded this “femme artificiel, this ingenious invention” and the Paris Royal Academy of Surgery invited her to present her machine to its members in 1746. Mme du Coudray also left her mark on the towns she had toured by depositing a model and illustrative textbook with local authorities, in the hopes that her former pupils would share their hard-won skills with new cohorts of midwifery trainees.

Midwifery manikins achieved new degrees of technical and pedagogical virtuosity within the cultures of eighteenth-century medical technology and pedagogy. Yet the history of this birthing hardware is much more – and less – than an uninterrupted trajectory of technical innovation culminating in the models’s classroom authority. Instead, it is the story of how such experts developed teaching tools on a largely pragmatic basis, with the aim of arming midwives with the expertise required to oversee both routine and difficult births in the lying-in chamber. Along the way, they encountered many challenges and some practitioners even came to question the mechanistic conception of the human body which the machines embodied, turning their gaze instead to the possibility of training midwives with real women in labour in hospital environments. Others continued to invest their energies in improving these manikins and it remains as no surprise that they have found their way into midwifery classrooms today.

—Margaret Carlyle

(all images © the author)

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