Moxon's Master

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce

04 Apr, 2014 09:15 PM

"Are you serious?Ñdo you really believe a machine thinks?"

I got no immediate reply; Moxon was apparently intent upon the coals in the
grate, touching them deftly here and there with the fire-poker till they
signified a sense of his attention by a brighter glow. For several weeks I
had been observing in him a growing habit of delay in answering even the
most trivial of commonplace questions. His air, however, was that of
preoccupation rather than deliberation: one might have said that he had
"something on his mind."

Presently he said:

"What is a 'machine'? The word has been variously defined. Here is one
definition from a popular dictionary: 'Any instrument or organization by
which power is applied and made effective, or a desired effect produced.'
Well, then, is not a man a machine? And you will admit that he thinksÑor
thinks he thinks."

"If you do not wish to answer my question," I said, rather testily, "why not
say so?Ñall that you say is mere evasion. You know well enough that when I
say 'machine' I do not mean a man, but something that man has made and

"When it does not control him," he said, rising abruptly and looking out of
a window, whence nothing was visible in the blackness of a stormy night. A
moment later he turned about and with a smile said:

"I beg your pardon; I had no thought of evasion. I considered the dictionary
man's unconscious testimony suggestive and worth something in the
discussion. I can give your question a direct answer easily enough: I do
believe that a machine thinks about the work that it is doing."

That was direct enough, certainly. It was not altogether pleasing, for it
tended to confirm a sad suspicion that Moxon's devotion to study and work in
his machine-shop had not been good from him. I knew, for one thing, that he
suffered from insomnia, and that is no light affliction. Had it affected his
mind? His reply to my question seemed to me then evidence that it had;
perhaps I should think differently about it now. I was younger then, and
among the blessings that are not denied to youth is ignorance. Incited by
that great stimulant to controversy, I said:

"And what, pray, does it think withÑin the absence of a brain?"

The reply, coming with less than his customary delay, took his favorite form
of counter-interrogation:

"With what does a plant thinkÑin the absence of a brain?"

"Ah, plants also belong to the philosopher class! I should be pleased to
know some of their conclusions; you may omit the premises."

"Perhaps," he replied, apparently unaffected by my foolish irony, "you may
be able to infer their convictions from their acts. I will spare you the
familiar examples of the sensitive mimosa and those insectivorous flowers
and those whose stamens bend down and shake their pollen upon the entering
bee in order that he may fertilize their distant mates. But observe this. In
an open spot in my garden I planted a climbing vine. When it was barely
above the surface I set a stake into the soil a yard away. The vine at once
made for it, but as it was about to reach it after several days I removed it
a few feet. The vine at once altered its course, making an acute angle, and
again made for the stake. This manoeuver was repeated several times, but
finally, as if discouraged, the vine abandoned the pursuit and ignoring
further attempts to divert it traveled to a small tree, further away, which
it climbed.

"Roots of the eucalyptus will prolong themselves incredibly in search of
moisture. A well-known horticulturist relates that one entered an old
drain-pipe and followed it until it came to a break, where a section of the
pipe had been removed to make way for a stone wall that had been built
across its course. The root left the drain and followed the wall until it
found an opening where a stone had fallen out. It crept through and
following the other side of the wall back to the drain, entered the
unexplored part and resumed its journey."

"And all this?"

"Can you miss the significance of it? It shows the consciousness of plants.
It proves they think."

"Even if it didÑwhat then? We were speaking, not of plants, but of machines.
They may be composed partly of woodÑ wood that has no longer vitalityÑor
wholly of metal. Is thought an attribute also of the mineral kingdom?"

"How else do you explain the phenomena, for example, of crystallization?"

"I do not explain them."

"Because you cannot without affirming what you wish to deny, namely,
intelligent cooperation among the constituent elements of the crystals. When
soldiers form lines, or hollow squares, you call it reason. When wild geese
in flight take the form of a letter V you say instinct. When the homogenous
atoms of a mineral, moving freely in solution, arrange themselves into
shapes mathematically perfect, or particles of frozen moisture into the
symmetrical and beautiful forms of snowflakes, you have nothing to say. You
have not even invented a name to conceal your heroic unreason."

Moxon was speaking with unusual animation and earnestness. As he paused I
heard in an adjoining room known to me as his "machine-shop," which no one
but himself was permitted to enter, a singular thumping sound, as of some
one pounding upon a table with an open hand. Moxon heard it at the same
moment and, visibly agitated, rose and hurriedly passed into the room whence
it came. I thought it odd that any one else should be in there, and my
interest in my friendÑwith doubtless a touch of unwarrantable curiosityÑled
me to listen intently, though, I am happy to say, not at the keyhole. There
were confused sounds, as of a struggle or scuffle; the floor shook. I
distinctly heard hard breathing and a hoarse whisper which said "Damn you!"
Then all was silent, and presently Moxon reappeared and said, with a rather
sorry smile:

"Pardon me for leaving you so abruptly, I have a machine in there that lost
its temper and cut up rough."

Fixing my eyes steadily upon his left cheek, which was traversed by four
parallel excoriations showing blood, I said:

"How would it do to trim its nails?"

I could have spared myself the jest; he gave it no attention, but seated
himself in the chair that he had left and resumed the interrupted monologue
as if nothing had occurred:

"Doubtless you do not hold with those (I need not name them to a man of your
reading) who have taught that all matter is sentient, that every atom is a
living, feeling, conscious being. I do. There is no such thing as dead,
inert matter: it is all alive; all instinct with force, actual and
potential; all sensitive to the same forces in its environment and
susceptible to the contagion of higher and subtler ones residing in such
superior organisms as it may be brought into relationship with, as those of
man when he is fashioning it into an instrument of his will. It absorbs
something of his intelligence and purpose Ñmore of them in proportion to the
complexity of the resulting machine and that of his work.

"Do you happen to recall Herbert Spencer's definition of 'Life'? I read it
thirty years ago. He may have altered it afterward, for anything I know, but
in all that time I have been unable to think of a single word that could
profitably be changed or added or removed. It seems to me not only the best
definition, but the only possible one.

"'Life,' he says, 'is a definite combination of heterogeneous changes, both
simultaneous and successive, in correspondence with external coexistences
and sequences.'"

"That defines the phenomenon," I said, "but gives no hint of its cause."

"That," he replied, "is all that any definition can do. As Mill points out,
we know nothing of effect except as a consequent. Of certain phenomena, one
never occurs without the other, which is dissimilar: the first in point of
time we call the cause, the second, the effect. One who had many times seen
a rabbit pursued by a dog, and had never seen rabbits and dogs otherwise,
would think the rabbit the cause of the dog.

"But I fear," he added, laughing naturally enough, "that my rabbit is
leading me a long way from the track of my legitimate quarry: I'm indulging
in the pleasure of the chase for its own sake. What I want you to observe is
that in Herbert Spenser's definition of 'life' the activity of a machine is
includedÑthere is nothing in the definition that is not applicable to it.
According to this sharpest of observers and deepest of thinkers, if a man
during his period of activity is alive, so is a machine when in operation.
As an inventor and constructor of machines I know that to be true."

Moxon was silent for a long time, gazing absently into the fire. It was
growing late and I thought it time to be going, but somehow I did not like
the notion of leaving him in that isolated house, all alone except for the
presence of some person whose nature my conjectures could go no further than
that it was unfriendly, perhaps malign. Leaning toward him and looking
earnestly into his eyes while making a motion with my hand through the door
of his workshop, I said:

"Moxon, whom do you have in there?"

Somewhat to my surprise he laughed lightly and answered without hesitation:

"Nobody; the incident that you have in mind was caused by my folly in
leaving a machine in action with nothing to act upon, while I undertook the
interminable task of enlightening your understanding. Do you happen to know
that Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm?"

"O bother them both!" I replied, rising and laying hold of my overcoat. "I'm
going to wish you good night; and I'll add the hope that the machine which
you inadvertently left in action will have her gloves on the next time you
think it needful to stop her."

Without waiting to observe the effect of my shot I left the house.

Rain was falling, and the darkness was intense. In the sky beyond the crest
of a hill toward which I groped my way along precarious plank sidewalks and
across miry, unpaved streets I could see the faint glow of the city's
lights, but behind me nothing was visible but a single window of Moxon's
house. It glowed with what seemed to me a mysterious and fateful meaning. I
knew it was an uncurtained aperture in my friend's "machine- shop," and I
had little doubt that he had resumed the studies interrupted by his duties
as my instructor in mechanical consciousness and the fatherhood of Rhythm.
Odd, and in some degree humorous, as his convictions seemed to me at that
time, I could not wholly divest myself of the feeling that they had some
tragic relation to his life and characterÑperhaps to his destinyÑalthough I
no longer entertained the notion that they were the vagaries of a disordered
mind. Whatever might be thought of his views, his exposition of them was too
logical for that. Over and over, his last words came back to me:
"Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm." Bald and terse as the statement
was, I now found it infinitely alluring. At each recurrence it broadened in
meaning and deepened in suggestion. Why, here (I thought) is something upon
which to found a philosophy. If consciousness is the product of rhythm all
things are conscious, for all have motion, and all motion is rhythmic. I
wondered if Moxon knew the significance and breadth of his thoughtÑthe scope
of this momentous generalization; or had he arrived at his philosophic faith
by the tortuous and uncertain road of observation?

That faith was then new to me, and all Moxon's expounding had failed to make
me a convert; but now it seemed as if a great light shone about me, like
that which fell upon Saul of Tarsus; and out there in the storm and darkness
and solitude I experienced what Lewes calls "The endless variety and
excitement of philosophic thought." I exulted in a new sense of knowledge, a
new pride of reason. My feet seemed hardly to touch the earth; it was as if
I were uplifted and borne through the air by invisible wings.

Yielding to an impulse to seek further light from him whom I now recognized
as my master and guide, I had unconsciously turned about, and almost before
I was aware of having done so found myself again at Moxon's door. I was
drenched with rain, but felt no discomfort. Unable in my excitement to find
the doorbell I instinctively tried the knob. It turned and, entering, I
mounted the stairs to the room that I had so recently left. All was dark and
silent; Moxon, as I had supposed, was in the adjoining roomÑthe "machine
shop." Groping along the wall until I found the communicating door I knocked
loudly several times, but got no response, which I attributed to the uproar
outside, for the wind was blowing a gale and dashing the rain against the
thin walls in sheets. The drumming upon the shingle roof spanning the
unceiled room was loud and incessant.

I had never been invited into the machine-shopÑhad, indeed, been denied
admittance, as had all others, with one exception, a skilled metal worker,
of whom no one knew anything except that his name was Haley and his habit
silence. But in my spiritual exaltation, discretion and civility were alike
forgotten and I opened the door. What I saw took all philosophical
speculation out of me in short order.

Moxon sat facing me at the farther side of a small table upon which a single
candle made all the light that was in the room. Opposite him, his back
toward me, sat another person. On the table between the two was a
chessboard; the men were playing. I knew little about chess, but as only a
few pieces were on the board it was obvious that the game was near its
close. Moxon was intensely interestedÑnot so much, it seemed to me, in the
game as in his antagonist, upon whom he had fixed so intent a look that,
standing though I did directly in the line of his vision, I was altogether
unobserved. His face was ghastly white, and his eyes glittered like
diamonds. Of his antagonist I had only a back view, but that was sufficient;
I should not have cared to see his face.

He was apparently not more than five feet in height, with proportions
suggesting those of a gorillaÑtremendous breadth of shoulders, thick, short
neck and broad, squat head, which had a tangled growth of black hair and was
topped by a crimson fez. A tunic of the same color, belted tightly to the
waist, reached the seatÑapparently a boxÑupon which he sat; his legs and
feet were not seen. His left forearm appeared to rest in his lap; he moved
his pieces with his right hand, which seemed disproportionately long.

I had shrunk back and now stood a little to one side of the doorway and in
shadow. If Moxon had looked farther than the face of his opponent he could
have observed nothing now, excepting that the door was open. Something
forbade me either to enter or retire, a feelingÑI know not how it cameÑthat
I was in the presence of imminent tragedy and might serve my friend by
remaining. With a scarcely conscious rebellion against the indelicacy of the
act I remained.

The play was rapid. Moxon hardly glanced at the board before making his
moves, and to my unskilled eye seemed to move the piece most convenient to
his hand, his motions in doing so being quick, nervous and lacking in
precision. The response of his antagonist, while equally prompt in the
inception, was made with a slow, uniform, mechanical and, I thought,
somewhat theatrical movement of the arm, that was a sore trial to my
patience. There was something unearthly about it all, and I caught myself
shuddering. But I was wet and cold.

Two or three times after moving a piece the stranger slightly inclined his
head, and each time I observed that Moxon shifted his king. All at once the
thought came to me that the man was dumb. And then that he was a machineÑan
automaton chessplayer! Then I remembered that Moxon had once spoken to me of
having invented such a piece of mechanism, though I did not understand that
it had actually been constructed. Was all his talk about the consciousness
and intelligence of machines merely a prelude to eventual exhibition of this
deviceÑonly a trick to intensify the effect of its mechanical action upon me
in my ignorance of its secret?

A fine end, this, of all my intellectual transportsÑmy "endless variety and
excitement of philosophic thought!" I was about to retire in disgust when
something occurred to hold my curiosity. I observed a shrug of the thing's
great shoulders, as if it were irritated: and so natural was thisÑso
entirely humanÑthat in my new view of the matter it startled me. Nor was
that all, for a moment later it struck the table sharply with its clenched
hand. At that gesture Moxon seemed even more startled than I: he pushed his
chair a little backward, as in alarm.

Presently Moxon, whose play it was, raised his hand high above the board,
pounced upon one of his pieces like a sparrowhawk and with an exclamation
"checkmate!" rose quickly to his feet and stepped behind his chair. The
automaton sat motionless.

The wind had now gone down, but I heard, at lessening intervals and
progressively louder, the rumble and roll of thunder. In the pauses between
I now became conscious of a low humming or buzzing which, like the thunder,
grew momentarily louder and more distinct. It seemed to come from the body
of the automaton, and was unmistakably a whirring of wheels. It gave me the
impression of a disordered mechanism which had escaped the repressive and
regulating action of some controlling partÑan effect such as might be
expected if a pawl should be jostled from the teeth of a ratchet-wheel. But
before I had time for much conjecture as to its nature my attention was
taken by the strange motions of the automaton itself. A slight but
continuous convulsion appeared to have possession of it. In body and head it
shook like a man with palsy or an ague chill, and the motion augmented every
moment until the entire figure was in violent agitation. Suddenly it sprang
to its feet and with a movement almost too quick for the eye to follow shot
forward across table and chair, with both arms thrust forward to their full
lengthÑthe posture and lunge of a diver. Moxon tried to throw himself
backward out of reach, but he was too late: I saw the horrible thing's hands
close upon his throat, his own clutch its wrists. Then the table was
overturned, the candle thrown to the floor and extinguished, and all was
black dark. But the noise of the struggle was dreadfully distinct, and most
terrible of all were the raucous, squawking sounds made by the strangled
man's efforts to breathe. Guided by the infernal hubbub, I sprang to the
rescue of my friend, but had hardly taken a stride in the darkness when the
whole room blazed with a blinding white light that burned into my brain and
heart and memory a vivid picture of the combatants on the floor, Moxon
underneath, his throat still in the clutch of those iron hands, his head
forced backward, his eyes protruding, his mouth wide open and his tongue
thrust out; andÑhorrible contrast!Ñ upon the painted face of the assassin an
expression of tranquil and profound thought, as in the solution of a problem
in chess! This I observed, then all was blackness and silence.

Three days later I recovered consciousness in a hospital. As the memory of
that tragic night slowly evolved in my ailing brain I recognized in my
attendant Moxon's confidential workman, Haley. Responding to a look he
approached, smiling.

"Tell me about it," I managed to say, faintlyÑ"all about it."

"Certainly," he said; "you were carried unconscious from a burning
houseÑMoxon's. Nobody knows how you came to be there. You may have to do a
little explaining. The origin of the fire is a bit mysterious, too. My own
notion is that the house was struck by lightning."

"And Moxon?"

"Buried yesterdayÑwhat was left of him."

Apparently this reticent person could unfold himself on occasion. When
imparting shocking intelligence to the sick he was affable enough. After
some moments of the keenest mental suffering I ventured to ask another

"Who rescued me?"

"Well, if that interests youÑI did."

"Thank you, Mr. Haley, and may God bless you for it. Did you rescue, also,
that charming product of your skill, the automaton chess-player that
murdered its inventor?"

The man was silent a long time, looking away from me. Presently he turned
and gravely said:

"Do you know that?"

"I do," I replied; "I saw it done."

That was many years ago. If asked today I should answer less confidently.

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