Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, later Chambers's Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, was a powerhouse publication in Victorian Great Britain. It aimed at the exponentially growing middle class rather than the elite college-educated aristocracy and soon had circulation in the 100,000 range. In the 1850s it moved to the center of the world, i.e. London, when James Payn became editor. That's the same James Payn whose story, A Hundred Years Hence, you'll find under the Food Pills heading.
Payn was considered a major writer of his day and had the pull and connections to feature many more. In later years you'd see such familiar names as Arthur Conan Doyle. But not in 1869. For whatever reasons, every entry - fiction, nonfiction, poetry - carried no byline. As with the movies before 1912 the total product was the important value, not the names of the individual players. At any rate, we'll probably never knew whose hand is behind "Mosco's Automaton."
"Mosco's Automaton" appeared in Chambers's July 17, 1869 issue. I try to put the covers at the top of stories I run, but Chambers's covers are almost impossible to find. The one above is from 1867, though, and should carry the flavor of what it looked like in 1869. The short story, less than 2500 words, got prominent placement as the lead story in the issue. I suppose it felt friendlier as a lead-in than "Insect Plagues of the Upper Amazons."
Automata must have been totally familiar to every reader, given how readily Mosco's is accepted as a standard part of his magic show. That must have been true in America as well. Copyright laws existed in 1869 but nobody paid attention to them, especially when foreign publications were involved. The story kept popping up in American newspapers and magazines for months.
St. Joseph [MI] Herald, Aug. 7, 1869, p 3
Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading Selected from Foreign Current Literature, Vol. VIII, No. 188, August 7, 1869, pp 165-167
The New Eclectic Magazine, September 1869, pp 35-54
Scott’s Monthly Magazine, September 1869, Vol. VIII, No. 3, pp 705-708
Otago Witness, Issue 938, 20 November 1869, p 19
And then it was forgotten. I can't find any later reference to it, anywhere. You'll be the first people in nearly 150 years to read this fun tale. (Note to English teachers and literary critics: this is also a world-class version of the unreliable narrator as Naïf.)
I have a hard and heavy head; it’s like wood. I don’t think I ever think; and don’t know as I ever did, except about nothing; and I often set doing that for hours at a time.
“You blockhead!” father he ses to me (which is a shipwright), “you’re only fit to cut up into a figure-head, you great hungry, hulking, wooden-headed lubber you! – for he had put me to lots of trades, and it was no use; everybody said I had no head-piece, no, not for going errands, nor giving away handbills even. It’s no good dunning things into my head, for the only thing I ever could remember is meal-times. Nothing I eat hurts me, and nothing don’t ever seem to do me any good. Nothing makes me laugh nor puts me out of temper. The only thing ever I see makes me feel like laughing is meals, and then I’ve got something better to do; and the only thing makes me feel getting out of temper is getting out of bed mornings to chop wood; but when you are out of bed you might as well chop wood as do anything else, for ought I know. The snail gets to his bed as quick as the swallow, and don’t get near so tired.
Well, there was a conjurer chap came into our town – a brisk lively sort of chap that could talk like a pump, in a regular stream. He see me loafing about, and give me an order to see his show, providing I would go up on the platform to hold some things for him. I went up, and did what he told me. It seemed to amuse the people very much, for they laughed themselves nearly into fits, and said: “Did ever you see a man keep his countenance like him?” and “it’s just as if he was cut out of wood.” Now, unless a man sees something to laugh at, he has got no call to laugh – and that’s why I didn’t.
After it was over, the conjurer chap came to me, and ses: “I never see your living equal. You must be used to the public, not to mind them any more than as if you was a stone idol?”
“I never see the public before,” I ses.
“You didn’t?” ses he?
“No, “ I ses.
“Well, look here,” he goes on. “I don’t mind standing you half-a-crown if you’ll tell me what you was a-thinking of when the public was screaming with laughing at you.”
“Victuals,” I answer.
“Come and have some with me,” he replies, “for I think I can put you in the way of getting them regular.”
So I did.
Next day, he goes to see my father.
“Your son has a wonderful talent, sir.”
“Hang his talent,” ses my father: “it’s a pity he can’t use it on any other tool than a knife and fork!”
“A natural gift, sir, for not laughing at anything, such as I never see before out of the reserved seats. The question is, could he be depended upon always to keep his countenance as he did last night?”
“I never see him smile in my life,” father makes reply, “nor get angered, nor put out; in fact, I never see him take notice of anything. There’s no mistake he can keep his countenance, which is a good deal more than his countenance’ll ever do for him.”
“I don’t know so much about that,’ the conjurer ses, for I’m open to give him two pound a week and his board if he’ll sign articles with me for twelve months.”
“And what is he to do?” ses my father.
“Nothing – except to be looked at, and that won’t hurt him, I suppose?”
“Well,” father ses to me, “is it a bargain?”
“I don’t care,” I ses. So I joined the show.
The public is an obstinate lot, for when you laugh, they won’t; but if you set your face against laughing, or if they’ve got no call to laugh, through not seeing anything to laugh at, they will laugh like mad – leastways so I’ve found it.
Signor Mosco was the conjurer’s name, or, at anyrate, the one he went by in public. He was called a pretty good hand, but I couldn’t se much in what he did. I knew where the bullets went to he made-believe to ram them into a pistol with a barrel like an ear-trumpet. I stuffed the gold watches in the half-quartern loaves, and ironed out the ladies’ and gentleman’s pocket-handkerchiefs while he was pretending to burn them. It’s surprising what little things amuse the public. I used to tell ‘em so, when Signor Mosco had done one of his best tricks, but they only grinned and said: “Lord, how he does keep his countenance!” and, “What a nerve he mist have, to be sure!” There was the hat-trick. The tins, and the feathers, and things look a good deal when they are all thrown about, but they took up no room scarcely when I put ‘em together, ready for use. And as to rolling two rabbits into one, what was there to surprise me, knowing all along very well what become of the second rabbit, when I shouldn’t have took on very much even if he had rolled ‘em into one, except it was at dinner-time. There was the decapitated head and the basket trick, and the magic flowers and the woman setting on nothing, which was called Mecca. Well, I see the looking-glasses and the false bottoms, lets alone the legs of the decapitated head; and, consequently, I couldn’t see anything in any of it.
There was only one part of the entire performance I ever could see anything in, and that was, as the bills put it, “The Marvellous Mechanical Man or Wooden Automaton, on whose construction no less than twenty-five years have been expended, to bring it to its present perfection as the greatest wonder of the age.”
I will tell you about it.
First of all, there was a large box, or pedestal, for the figure to stand on, and containing the works, which was carried off the stage, and into the center of the reserved seats. It had a winch, to turn with a handle like a bed-post key, to wind up the man, and when wound up made a noise like an engine getting up steam, which was the works running down. Then the man was brought down off the stage, carried upright by four strong fellows. His feet were fastened to a round wooden stand, like children’s soldiers stand on, in which a worm for the great screw on the top of the pedestal. When brought down, he was hoisted up on the pedestal, and turned round and round until screwed on. There were a great many tubes, and wires, and levers connecting the figure with the box, and sticking out round it, which looked very curious, and besides, showed the working parts. But a worse finished man no one ever see at a tobacconist’s shop-door, which made it all the more singular doing what it did. About his neck and the back of his head the paint was wore off, showing the bare wood; and the same with the point of his nose, which was splintered; and likewise his hands, which was glued and cracked. Signor Mosco used to explain that this had occurred in packing, and that he would repair the injuries. But it seemed as if it always occurred in packing, for the injuries never were repaired. Then, as to his complexion, it would have been a disgrace to any house-painter. It was red and whitewash, varnished, and done so badly, that it looked as if you could see the grain of the wood through the paint. I’ve often asked Signor Mosco why he didn’t paint his automaton better, but he only grinned, and said: “How precious green you are, ain’t you?”
Everybody who see the man used to say: “How stupid of Signor Mosco, after making such a clever figure, not to have spent a pound or two in finishing it properly, instead of leaving it such a clumsy wooden scarecrow.”
The newspapers, too, used to speak most disrespectful of the man; like this which I’ve cut out:
“Signor Mosco revisited our town with his interesting exhibition last week. His remarkably skillful feats of prestidigitation were the admiration of large and fashionable audiences. To the other attractions of his entertainment, the professor of the quick-fingered art has added what he is pleased to term The Marvelous Mechanical Man. The performances of this automaton are particularly clever, but it belies its name. It might with more correctness be termed a figure, for it is so roughly constructed as to bear no more resemblance to humanity than the effigies which are carried through our streets on the 5th November. We cannot help thinking that if Signor Mosco would devote a little more pains to the finish of his wooden effigy, and to concealing some of the cords and levers by which the life-like motions are conveyed to the limbs, the illusion would be rendered more complete.”
So far from being angry at reading such notices, Signor Mosco always used to chuckle and slap me on the back, and want to know why I didn’t laugh too. I ses, very naturally: “Because I don’t see anything to laugh at.” “Well,” ses he, “you are a cure, you are, and biggest I ever see.”
But that figure only got worse, and more shabby and rickety, the more that was said about it, until at last, whenever the men used to carry the automaton to its pedestal, one of the arms would drop off. The professor always said it was an unforeseen accident, and apologised for it. But it was an unforeseen accident that used regularly to occur every evening, and get apologised for. And what was another thing, the worse the figure was and the more rickety her got, the more clever people thought his performance was.
Well, when the Mechanical Man was screwed down on the pedestal for his performance, Signor Mosco would commence with a short lecture on the powers of the lever, the screw, and the pulley, and the spiral spring. He would then go and wind up the machine, with the handle like a bed-wrench. It made a great clatter, and took a long time to wind, owing to the power of the spring. When he had done, the whole concern began to go “Cr-r-r-r-r,” and kept on going so all the time, whilst the people could see the works going round through one side of the pedestal, which was of glass. The professor would then strike sharply with his wand, and pull a cord that worked the levers of the automaton’s head. “Wake, Francisco!” ses he; and Francisco, which was the wooden figure, begins to move his head, very slow, first from right to left, then from left to right. Then Signor Mosco pulls another string, and Francisco opens his eyes, very gradually or quick, according as the string is pulled. Then it would be: “Raise the right arm, and salute the company;” which the figure would do, rather stiff and jerky, but still he did it. That stiffness and jerkiness of the movements (and they were all like that) was what people seemed disposed to grumble at. “We want to see them a little more airy and graceful,” the public ses. “Ladies and gentlemen,” ses the Signor, “what can you expect from machinery?” – which was very true. “But to shew you the command I have over the automaton when at a distance from it, I will now return to the stage, after simply pressing a spring in the figure’s back, and sitting before the index board connected with the figure, I will enable you to put its abilities to the test.” He sat at a small table in front of the stage, where there was a board like a draught-board, but covered all over with knobs. People were then to question the automaton. The figure did numbers and counting, by slowly jerking up its right hand as many times as was wanted. “Yes” and “No” he did with his head, by bending it for “Yes,” and shaking it for “No;” and this way he would tell fortunes and ages quite equal to a learned pig or educated pony. Indeed, there was no end to the questions he could answer, and they were often right, which was a wonder for machinery. Francisco used to finish up by whirling his arms round like the wooden sailors do on weather-cocks, and he would keep on until the professor touched a button and stopped the works, when his arms would remain sticking straight up, until a string was pulled to let them down, and even then they would keep on swinging backwards and forwards for a bit. There were some people wanted the automaton to do more, but the Signor said it couldn’t be done, not by machinery.
In due time, as we went around the provinces, we came back around to the town where my father lived. I was against going there at all. I told Signor Mosco so; and I didn’t want him to shew the Mechanical Man there, as I told him they weren’t good judges of machinery in that place. But he wouldn’t listen, and so the automaton was done there the first night. We had got about half-way through his performance, and the professor had gone on to the stage, whilst Francisco was answering questions. There is mostly a crowd of people round the figure at such time, but to-night there was a wiry old man pressing his way close up to the wooden effigy, and looking into its eyes.
“Now, sir, will you keep your hands off that figure, if you please – do you hear me?” Signor Mosco ses.
“Mother!” the old man bawls out to his wife, taking no notice – only laughing fit to split – “mother! come here, I tell ye – I’m blowed if they haven’t been and made a figure-head of our Bill!”
I couldn’t see anything to laugh at, for it was two pound a week and victuals out of my pocket, let alone the exposure.
I can't find any contemporary accounts of such a stage act, but that may merely be due to the much smaller percentages of 1860s papers being put online. Did our friend Anonymous invent the idea or merely make fun of contemporary shows? For we know for sure that acts almost exactly like this were a fad on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits in the first years of the twentieth century. (The two terms overlapped at the term; the meaning assigning burlesque to striptease emerges at a much later date.) Any number of performers pretended to be automatons, invented by brilliant scientists, often foreign. (The Germans in particular were considered far ahead of American inventors, as seen in Percy: Comic's First Robot.) Phroso, Occultus, Enigmarelle, Fontinelle, and even Psycho were among the males; Miss Terla and Ruth Everett, the Original Mechanical Doll, among the females. Theatres placed giant ads in newspapers asking "Is It a Man or a Machine?" and their press agents wrote releases assuring one and all that audiences were baffled, which were printed whole by papers willing to accede to their advertisers, meaning all of them.
Were audiences really fooled? Many wanted to be. Just the idea of an automaton so advanced, such a wonder of the mechanical arts, would have thrilled audiences living through unprecedented invention and change in 1902 or 1907. They must have understood deep down that a true scientific creation wouldn't be playing the vaudeville circuit. Yet they also understood that stage magicians were illusionists and a fine illusion has always been worth time and money.
A marvelous picture of Phroso, a European import, reveals how creatively doll-like the figure's features were. That has to be a wooden soldier straight out of the Nutcracker.