Walt Whitman's Best Friend Wrote The First Robot Revolution Story

Illustration for article titled Walt Whitman's Best Friend Wrote The First Robot Revolution Story

Long before Isaac Asimov first touched a typewriter, Walt Whitman's boon companion William Douglas O'Connor toiled over a story of steampunk robots and political intrigue, called "The Brazen Android." And it's online as an audiobook.


The "Brazen Android" (and I think in this case, "brazen" refers to it being made of brass) is based on an old legend about Roger Bacon, the friar best known for inventing the scientific method. According to the legend, Bacon created an omniscient brass head using alchemy or magic. And he wanted the brass head to teach him how to create an impenetrable bronze wall that would surround England and keep it safe from invaders. But the head only came to life once, while Bacon was sleeping.

Walt Whitman's best friend, O'Connor, decided to retell this story, fleshing it out and making it more sympathetic to Bacon. In O'Connor's version, the brass head is steampowered. (Early steampunk!) And Bacon wants to use it to visit the venal king Henry III, and convince to make an agreement with Simon de Monfort, an early proponent of democracy. (The king had a nightmare about waking up in a strange room and having a brass head speak to him, so having an actual brass head turn up and speak to him will freak him out good and proper.) Too bad Bacon falls afoul of the superstitious Paduan master, Malestri, who sees the brass android as demonic, and fears that it will give rise to a new race of brass men who will rise up and replace flesh-and-blood humans. In the end, the android's steam-powered mechanism explodes before it can complete its task. And Bacon repents his attempted trickery.

Here's Bacon discussing his plans with his assistant, Bungy:

"But what was really important holding diseussion with him on the nature and difference of sounds, he did show me that articulations to a great extent ean be effeeted by simply natural means so that a maehine may be made to utter certain sentences. This machine compact in form placed within a bust of brass and set in motion, and lo, you have a brazen android whieh seems to speak of itself what by means of art it uttereth."

Bungy clapped his big hands and stamped his feet, roaring with laughter. "Oh brave, brave!" he shouted. "This, then, is the machine we have made. St Swithin be praised for my wondrous genius in braziery, whereby I have fashioned the brass andiron or whatever the devil you please to call the shell of this thing!"

"Android, not andiron," said Bacon, smiling. "It is from the Greek."...

"What if he should hear such good counsel as this?" Urged Bacon. "What if this superstitious king, with the memory of his dream upon him, should have a brazen android appear to him, indeed, and speak thus for his salvation? Behold, the android is made."

"And it will speak to him?" panted Bungy.

Bacon rose swiftly and silently to his feet, like a ghost, and stood dilated, with a white light on his marble brow and wasted features, and his eyes flaming in their hollow orbits.

"Ay," he said in a low and thrilling voice. "It will speak my thought to him. It will utter Roger Bacon's message to the king of England!"

You can listen to the entire thing, as an audiobook, by going to the Internet Archive.

Brass robot image from Eccentric Genius.




Thanks for this!

The Brazen Head, sometimes called Baphomet, is mixed up in legends about the Knights Templar and shows up in Robertson Davies Deptford Trilogy.