Tuesday, July 29, 2014

SCIOD 2: A Left-Handed Mechanical Loom

In the summer of 1784, Edmund Cartwright, a clergyman, was on holiday in Matlock, Derbyshire, not far from Cromford, where Richard Arkwright had a cotton-spinning mill. Cartwright fell into conversation with some gentlemen from Manchester about what would happen when Arkwright's patent expired. "One of the company observed," Cartwright later wrote, "that... so many mills would be erected, and so much cotton spun, that hands never could be found to weave it."

Cartwright suggested that Arkwright ought to get busy inventing a mechanical loom. His companions scoffed at the impracticality of the idea. Knowing nothing about either weaving or machines, Cartwright called attention to the chess-playing automaton built by Baron Ludwig von Kempelen, which had recently been exhibited in London:
Now you will not assert, gentlemen, said I, that it is more difficult to construct a machine that shall weave, than one which shall make all the variety of moves which are required in that complicated game. 
Later on, recalling this conversation, Cartwright gave the matter more thought and came to the conclusion that such a machine was indeed possible. He hired a carpenter and proceeded to build a prototype, having "never before turned my thoughts to any thing mechanical, either in theory or practice, nor had ever seen a loom at work, or knew any thing of its construction." Needless to say, the first loom was rather crude but Cartwright persevered and in August of 1787 patented a loom, "nearly as they are now made," he wrote in a letter to Dugald Bannatyne, author of the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on "Cotton Manufacture," published in 1818.

In his communication to Bannatyne, Cartwright didn't say if he ever found out that the chess-playing automaton that inspired his invention was an elaborate hoax – a puppet operated by a man concealed in the device's cabinet. In an essay about the chess-player, published in 1836, Edgar Allan Poe observed, "we find every where men of mechanical genius, of great general acuteness, and discriminative understanding, who make no scruple in pronouncing the Automaton a pure machine." If these assumption had been correct, the chess-player would undoubtedly be "beyond all comparison, the most astonishing of the inventions of mankind." According to Poe, though:
The first attempt at a written explanation of the secret, at least the first attempt of which we ourselves have any knowledge, was made in a large pamphlet printed at Paris in 1785. The author’s hypothesis amounted to this — that a dwarf actuated the machine.… This whole hypothesis was too obviously absurd to require comment, or refutation, and accordingly we find that it attracted very little attention.
In 1789 a book was published at Dresden by M. I. F. Freyhere in which another endeavor was made to unravel the mystery…. His supposition was that “a well-taught boy very thin and tall of his age (sufficiently so that he could be concealed in a drawer almost immediately under the chess-board”) played the game of chess and effected all the evolutions of the Automaton. This idea, although even more silly than that of the Parisian author, met with a better reception, and was in some measure believed to be the true solution of the wonder, until the inventor put an end to the discussion by suffering a close examination of the top of the box. 
These bizarre attempts at explanation were followed by others equally bizarre. Of late years however, an anonymous writer, by a course of reasoning exceedingly unphilosophical, has contrived to blunder upon a plausible solution — although we cannot consider it altogether the true one.
After reviewing these previous attempts at explaining the secret of the Automaton, Poe endeavored "to show how its operations are effected, and afterwards describe, as briefly as possible, the nature of the observations from which we have deduced our result." After enumerating 17 observations, Poe concluded that the decisive clue is that the Automaton plays with his left arm – "for the Chess-Player plays precisely as a man would not":
Let us, for example, imagine the Automaton to play with his right arm. To reach the machinery which moves the arm, and which we have before explained to lie just beneath the shoulder, it would be necessary for the man within either to use his right arm in an exceedingly painful and awkward position, (viz. brought up close to his body and tightly compressed between his body and the side of the Automaton,) or else to use his left arm brought across his breast. In neither case could he act with the requisite ease or precision.
Although a plausible conjecture, Poe's conclusion seems at first hardly conclusive. A right-handed Automaton could be operated easily enough by a left-handed person. As it turns out, lefties tend to be more heavily represented among chess players than in the general population. But they are still outnumbered by roughly five to one. As Poe's character, Dupin, was later to remark in "The Murder in the Rue Morgue," "there is such a thing as being too profound. Truth is not always in a well." Superficial as it may seem, odds of 5 to 1 in hiring an operator for the puppet are probably sufficient cause for constructing a left-handed automaton.

1 comment:

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Re: "...what would happen when Arkwright's patent expired. .... so many mills would be erected, and so much cotton spun, that hands never could be found to weave it." Cartwright suggested that Arkwright ought to get busy inventing a mechanical loom. ..."

Increased national production "at all costs" was the British objective after the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) according to Dorothy George in 1931 book entitled "England in Transition". "A catastrophic upheaval of deeply rooted custom" followed (under "an immense burden of debt" in Britain.) "Full suffering" for those who were neither active nor enterprising, "or who found themselves stranded with their acquired skill made valueless. And the suffering was made greater by the sense of being excluded from the benefits of an enormous increase of wealth."

Erasmus Darwin, in 1792 foretold even more upheaval:

"Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER'D STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.