The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
Sometimes in the thousands of old newspaper articles I read while doing keyword searches I unearth a true gem. The Detroit Free Press on Sunday, July 20, 1884 ran a little anonymous story that appears to be the first piece of fiction connecting an automaton to the new phonograph technology to make a programmable talking robot.
"The Clericomotor" is a broadly humorous tale squarely in the American folk tale tradition, no matter that its subject is the most up-to-date technology. The church in the tiny town of Byesville wants to replace its aging parson because "his theology was not abreast of the times." Deacons Simpson, Stimpson and Grubb advertise for a replacement. Ten days later, a city slicker with a large trunk arrives on the express train from New York. In it he has packed the Rev. Dr. Dummeigh.
Dr, Dummeigh is an automaton replacement for the parson, which the stranger calls a clericomotor. The anonymous genius who wrote the story seems to be the first to identify and apply a jaundiced opinion about human nature: most of the words expressed so volubly by people are unnecessary, repetitive, and rely on stock social cliches. Put a few of them onto recordings, play the right ones at the right times, and no one could tell an artificial human from a real one. It's the Turing test a half century early. Many stories in the late 19th century would swipe or reinvent this notion. In 1877 Frederic Beecher Perkins expanded the idea to an industry in "the Man-ufactory," which supplies clergy and lecturers on a national scale.
Rogers expounds on the many values of automatons, including their lack of need of upkeep in the form of food, clothing, and shelter as well as their ability to spout the best sermons money can buy rather than rely on the uncertain brain of the local minister. All that's needed is a small boy to turn its crank (a reminder that automatic phonographs are still in this story's future). The introduction of a boy is a tipoff in 19th century stories. All boys are mischievous imps who live for nothing but havoc and chaos. (From The Katzenjammer Kids through Dennis the Menace to Calvin and Hobbes, this trope would live in newspaper comic strips forever.) What would happen, thinks little Hezekia Simpson, if the crank were turned backward? I bet you already know the answer.
The story was a smash, reprinted for a year in little papers across the country, from the Journal in Denton, MD to the Mercury in Newport, RI and even in the Dakota Territory in the Jamestown Weekly Alert, all crediting the Free Press. Good thing, too. In one of the many oddities of newspaper databases, no hits on automaton or clericomotor appear if you add Detroit Free Press to the search, even though a glance at the issue will prove that the story ran on page 18, the back page, where the human interest stories were buried.
Whatever the reason, nobody has dug up "The Clericomotor" since 1885. It's not mentioned in any reference book. Google returns no hits other than references to the original newspaper appearances. This is the first appearance of an important first in robot, technology, and science fiction history on the general Internet. Please enjoy.
Detroit Free Press
July 20, 1884
There was trouble in the Byesville orthodox church. Old Parson Thorne, who for the last forty years had been a faithful shepherd to his flock, no longer occupied the pulpit.
Byesville was a struggling little hamlet when the good man first came there, and he had seen it grow to a thriving, bustling town. With this material change there had gradually come a corresponding spiritual alteration in the minds of the church-goers, and they began to find the parson’s simple expositions of the divine truths a trifle too quiet and slow for the progressive spirit which animated them. As to the parson’s personal worth and Christian humility there was no question, but his theology was not abreast of the times. At first the murmurs of discontent were heard from only a few, but the feeling seemed to be contagious, and as time wore on it grew stronger, until there could be only one possible climax – the supplanting of the present pastor by a younger and more advanced clergyman. The first of these steps had been already taken; Good old Parson Thorne had preached his farewell sermon, and the pulpit was vacant. The second movement, however, was found to be far less easy of accomplishment. At last, failing to secure the wished-for prize through the ordinary channels, the committee on selection, Deacons Simpson, Stimpson and Grubb, resolved upon a bold move. They inserted an ingeniously worded advertisement in a prominent New York religious journal and awaited the result. Their patience was not put to a severe test.
On the tenth day following the first appearance of the advertisement a stranger stepped from the New York morning express train into the Byesville depot, and a few moments later was conveyed in the village omnibus to the Wallingford house. His baggage, a metallic bound trunk of unusual size, soon followed him.
He registered as “John Rogers,” and after a short conversation with the clerk, which resulted in the sending of the bell boy on a mysterious errand, was shown to room 16, whither his trunk preceded him. A subdued noise of hammering was heard from the stranger’s apartment for a brief period, and then all was still.
Half an hour later a gentle knock on the door of No. 16 announced the presence of Deacons Simpson, Stimpson and Grubb. The stranger ushered them in with a quiet courtesy and begged them to be seated.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “you are doubtless aware of the business which has brought me here?”
“I presume,” replied Deacon Simpson, who was the self-elected chairman of the committee, “you come in answer to our advertisement.”
“You are quite right,” responded the stranger with a pleasant smile which displayed his fine teeth to advantage, “your advertisement has indeed brought me here.”
The committee eyed him critically.
“One moment, gentlemen,” cried the stranger, “I fear you are laboring under a slight misapprehension. I am not an applicant for ministerial honors. My friend, the candidate, who is of a retiring disposition, has desired me to see you first and give him time to prepare for the interview.”
“Where is he?” in chorus cried Deacons Stimpson, Simpson and Grubb, looking with a common impulse toward the curtain. The stranger followed their glances.
“You are quite right,” he calmly answered. “My friend is there. Excuse me gentlemen.” He dashed behind the curtain. A low, clicking noise was heard for a moment, and then the drapery was suddenly drawn aside.
An exclamation of surprise broke from the three deacons. They saw an improvised reading-desk at the end of the apartment, behind which, in a thoughtful attitude, sat a distinguished-looking man.
“Gentlemen,” briskly cried Rogers, unconsciously assuming the air of a traveling showman, “I have the distinguished pleasure of introducing to you the Rev. Dr. Dummeigh.”
The deacons arose with much gravity and bowed very stiffly.
To their greeting the distinguished looking figure at the table vouchsafed no response; his attitude of profound meditation remained unchanged. Somewhat taken aback by this frigid reception, the worthy deacon, after a moment’s hesitation, turned an inquiring look upon Mr. John Rogers.
“Ah,” said that gentleman in a reassuring tone, “I see I must explain. Let me do so as briefly as possible. Our clerical friend here is not, as you suppose, a being of flesh and blood, but a creature of my own invention.” This astounding revelation had a startling effect upon the deacons. They simultaneously arose with the evident intention of inspecting the figure at close quarters, but Mr. Rodgers checked them.
“One moment, gentlemen,” he said; “after I have finished my explanation I shall be most happy to exhibit the figure and its workings to you. You may not be aware of it, but I am an inventor of considerable repute, although this is my first effort in this direction. The idea, however, of such a mechanical figure has long possessed me. My father was a Methodist minister, and in my boyhood we were obliged to change or residence so often that I grew to look upon him as a sort of peripatetic machine.
“And this gave me the notion of an automaton which would fulfill most of the requirements of the average clergyman. The idea grew upon me, and I gradually enlarged its scope until you see before you now the perfected fruit of my imagining.” He paused with a dramatic gesture toward the figure. The three deacons were listening with breathless attention.
“Having thus,” he continued, “briefly touched upon the conception of the clericomotor, I will now proceed to explain its merits and its workings. In the first place you are aware that the popular church of today is the successful one. And the successful church can only be erected on a sound financial basis. Look around you,” he suddenly cried, with a grandiose sweep of his arm, “at the successful churches, where the pews command gilt-edged premiums and the tinkling of the silver as it falls into the contribution box drowns the loudest notes of the pealing organ!”
Carried away by his eloquence Deacons Simpson, Stimpson and Grubb stared wildly about the room, as if the edifice alluded to were actually within sight.
“What constitutes their prime attraction?” he continued. “Is it the soundness of their theology? or the breadth of their Christianity? No, gentlemen; no! It is the popular clergyman with his platitudes, and his resounding rhetoric. But the demand for these playing cards is so great that the market price has been raised far beyond the reach of ordinary congregations until it lies within the power of only the wealthiest of churches to secure them. It is here that the clericomotor comes into play. By means of it I place within the reach of the humblest congregation an attraction of the strongest form.”
He checked his voluble address, and wiped the perspiration from his face. The deacons took advantage of this momentary gap to gather their scattered senses.
“But how,” queried Deacon Simpson, “do you supply the brains?”
“And the voice?” added Deacon Stimpson.
“An’ the gesturin’?” concluded Deacon Grubb.
“Nothing easier,” said the inventor. “You are, of course, familiar with the principles of the phonograph. I will frankly state that I have adopted this idea – in an improved form, of course – in constructing the clericomotor.” He approached the automaton. “Now, gentlemen,” he continued, “if you will give me your closest attention, I will show you how the figure is operated.”
The deacons crowded round him in open-mouthed expectancy. He went on glibly: “By pressing on the right-hand button at the back of the coat a trap-door, you observe, flies open between the shoulder-blades. Into this receptacle I slide this prepared electro-type plate. By pressing upon the left-hand button I close the trap-door. Now, if you will cast your eyes at the calf of the left leg, you will see a small projecting rod. To this I attach an ordinary crank – thus.” Suiting the action to the word, he placed the handle in position and turned it vigorously. The result was marvelous. The figure arose from its sitting posture in a dignified and natural manner, and resting one hand gracefully upon the table and extending the other in an appealing manner, said in a powerful, though well-modulated voice: “The usual collection will now be taken up.” Then, with equal grace and deliberation, the automaton resumed its seat.
This performance had a surprising effect upon Deacons Simpson, Simpson and Grubb. So natural was the speaker’s tone and gesture that the committee sprang back in some confusion, and instinctively buttoned their coats tightly over their pockets.
“Perfectly surprisin’,” gasped Deacon Simpson.
“As natural as life,” murmured Deacon Stimpson.
“Jes’ so,” whispered Deacon Grubb.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” cried the smiling inventor, “I knew you would appreciate it. A word or two more. These sermons (pointing to a pile of metal plates upon the table) I obtain from a prominent literary bureau. They are all new, original and guaranteed. You get them at the wholesale rates. With each clericomotor I also throw in twenty assorted hymns, announcements and remarks suitable to all occasions, together with two bottles of my celebrated electrical lubricator and a monkey-wrench. My schedule rate is $500, but, as you gentlemen are the first purchasers, I will make it $450 net.”
The deacons were almost overcome by this rapid way of doing business.
“Hold on,” cried Deacon Simpson, “how about christenings?”
“Weddings first!” dryly remarked Deacon Stimpson.
“An’ pastoral calls,” added Deacon Grubb.
“All arranged, gentlemen, cried the genial Rogers; “plates for everything! Just think of it – no bickerings over the parson’s visits; no devastating donation parties; no soul-destroying slippers to distract your daughter’s mind; no salary falling due every quarter! The clericomotor is never troubled with clergymen’s sore throat and needs no vacations. In short, the only expense he will entail upon you will be for a small boy to turn the crank.”
Deacon Simpson’s face lighted up. “That won’t cost much, I reckon,” he said; “my boy, Hezekiah, will be just the one for that.”
Deacon Stimpson and Grubb looked at each other with a dubious expression, for Hez. Simpson was generally considered the worst boy in Byesville.
“Understand, gentlemen,” said the inventor gravely, “this whole matter is to be kept a profound secret. I ask nothing until the clericomotor has publicly proved its usefulness. To-day is Friday – if you have no objection, we will try it next Sunday.”
The deacons nodded assent.
“In the meantime I must again urge upon you the necessity of the strictest secrecy.”
It had been whispered about Byesville that the committee on selection had a new candidate to present to the congregation. Consequently the church was filled to its utmost capacity at an unusually early hour. Notwithstanding this fact the first comers were surprised to find the clerical stranger there before them. As the church filled up, many comments were whispered over this unusual proceeding, but they were supplemented by numerous complimentary allusions to his distinguished appearance.
The services opened with the doxology – sung by the congregation – and proceeded in the customary manner. The congregation was charmed with the new-comer. His gestures were graceful, though exceedingly numerous, and his voice full and deep. So finely developed were these admirable qualities that when he made the announcement that the usual collection would be taken up, it was noted that he imparted to it a sympathetic flavor that it never before seemed to possess.
It was, however, in the sermon that he achieved his crowning triumph. Never before in the history of the Byesville orthodox church had such an eloquent effort been heard. Replete with graceful imagery and profound thought, it held their undivided attention from the opening sentences. And most remarkable of all it was delivered extemporaneously! The faces of Deacons Simpson, Stimpson and Grubb wore looks of the proudest satisfaction, and they exchanged smiles of congratulation across the church.
Happily they did not know what was in store for them.
As is understood, the motive power of the clericomotor was Hez. Simpson, the deacon’s harum-scarum son, who was concealed behind the pulpit. At first the responsibility of his position held his frolicsome disposition in check, and he performed the duties prescribe for him with exemplary fidelity, but, as the novelty wore off, his natural spirit of mischief asserted itself. Despite his solemn instruction not to turn the handle backward, and probably because of this very interdiction, he was dying to try the effect of the forbidden experiment.
The new clergyman had reached “Seventeenthly,” and was just entering upon a glowing peroration, when he was observed to slightly hesitate. Almost immediately, however, he recovered himself, and clearly and forcibly ejaculated, “Sixteenthly!”
Hez. had commenced experimenting.
The reverend gentleman repeated a few sentences smoothly, and then, without a moment’s warning, shouted, “Thirdly!”
The hair on the heads of Deacons Simpson and Stimpson stood on end in horror. Deacon Grubb was bald. It was very evident that Hezekiah had thrown all prudence to the wind. The new minister, without in the slightest degree losing the expression of gravity which added dignity to his countenance, calmly proceeded backward by jerks through “secondly” and “firstly.” Then he jumbled together two announcements and a hymn, and varied the astonishing performance by rapidly sitting down and rising again a half dozen times. Following this with a variety of wild gestures, he fiercely delivered what was commonly supposed to be a quotation in Choctaw, and then suddenly roared: “The usual collection will now be ----“The balance of the sentence was lost in a frightful explosion. Intoxicated with success, Hez. had jammed the crank back too far and the main cylinder had burst.
The collapsed clericomotor sank to the floor as the congregation rushed in dismay from the building.
The pulpit of the orthodox church of Byesville is still vacant.