More Options

How to Make a Monster!

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.6, November/December 2010

The Legend of Creating Artificial Life: From the Golem to Pinocchio

Everyone knows the tragic tale of Victor Frankenstein, the man who, in the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, succeeded in bringing back to life a corpse, only to immediately lose control over it. But the human dream of creating artificial life goes far beyond the creature that terrified Victorians.

This dream belongs to the Roman poet Ovid, whose short story "Metamorphosis," dating back to 8 ce, tells the story of Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, who modeled a female statue in ivory. He called her Galatea and fell in love with her, considering the statue to be well above any flesh and blood woman. Pygmalion ended up praying to Aphrodite to let him marry the being he had created, and the Goddess relented. Ovid tells how Pygmalion saw his statue slowly coming to life, breathing, and opening her eyes.

With his story, Ovid meant to underscore the devotion of the artist to the product of his work, which can go as far as identifying oneself in it. Ovid did not imagine that he was writing the prototype of many modern science-fiction tales!

Creatures without Control

Much older than Ovid's Galatea, however, is the figure of the golem, a sort of giant created by magic in Jewish mythology who first appears in the Bible. Jews link the word gelem ("raw material"), which appears in the Old Testament (Psalm 139:16), to the figure of Adam before life was infused into him.

In classic tradition, the golem is a strong and obedient creature made of clay that a rabbi can activate for servitude just by writing on his forehead a word meaning "God is truth." By erasing one of the letters of this word, the word that remains means "God is dead," and the golem stops.

In a version of this tale set in seventeenth-century Poland, of which traces can be found in a letter dated 1674, a golem became an unstoppable menace for his master. The master, Rabbi Elija Ba'al Schem from Chelm, asked the golem to take off his shoes; when it kneeled down, the clever Rabbi wiped the word life from the creature's forehead. The golem then died, but he fell upon the rabbi and killed him.

The most famous version of the story, however, dates from the eighteenth century and is set in Prague's ghetto. Here, the golem--created by beloved Rabbi Jehuda Löw Ben Bezalel at the beginning of the seventeenth century--was a defender of the Jewish people from persecutions and anti-
Semitic pogroms. The rabbi, however, lost control over the golem, and it began to destroy everything it met. Once the rabbi regained control over the situation, he decided to deactivate the golem and hide it in the attic of Prague's Old-New Synagogue, in the heart of the old Jewish quarter, where--according to the legend--his body still rests today. (Czech investigator Ivan Mackerle went searching for the golem's body in the roof space of the synagogue but couldn't find anything useful; his interesting report can be found in Fortean Times 238, July 2008).

Androids and Humunculus

Other examples of artificial creatures with human-like features can be found in Greek mythology as well. Cadmus, founder of Thebes, buried dragon's teeth, which transformed into soldiers. Hephaestus, god of metalwork, created mechanical slaves, ranging from girls made of gold and with a sentient mind to three-legged tables that could move by themselves.

Inuit legends tell of the Tupilaq, an avenging monster created by a wizard to hunt and kill an enemy. But the Tupilaq can be a double-edged sword, for a victim who knows magic can stop the creature and turn it back on its creator.

In the fourteenth century, philosopher, theologian, and scholar Saint Albertus Magnus was the first to use the word android to define living beings created by man through alchemy. According to legend, Albertus was able to build a real android made of metal, wood, wax, and glass. He gave it the power of speech and used it as a servant at the Dominican monastery of Cologne.

It was in the Middle Ages that technology allowed people to not only imagine but to build the first mechanical automatons, which were mainly moving dolls used to embellish bell towers and churches. Even Leonardo da Vinci showed interest in the subject; project plans dating to about 1495 show a mechanical knight in armor. In da Vinci's plans, the figure should have been able to stand up; move his arms, head, and jaw; and emit sounds from his mouth due to a complex percussion mechanism hidden in his chest. It is possible that the mechanical knight was just an idea da Vinci drew up for Duke Ludovico Sforza, for whom he worked at the time, to liven up parties at the Sforzesco Castle in Milan. Nobody knows if it was ever built.

It was only in the eighteenth century that automatons became sophisticated figurines able to write, dance, do magic tricks, perform acrobatics, and play chess and musical instruments. However, even then they were just mechanical creatures controlled by man without a will of their own--unlike the homunculus, which according to alchemical tradition was a real human being created in vitro. Paracelsus, the Renaissance alchemist, went so far as to write a recipe for creating a homunculus. The recipe began with a man's semen, which was left resting for forty days in a vial kept warm by a horse stomach and fed with human blood. After forty weeks the contents of the vial would supposedly transform into a real boy--complete and perfect but smaller than a human baby and, like the golem, lacking a soul.

Frankenstein and Pinocchio

At the start of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Taking inspiration both from the experiments of Luigi Galvani (who used electrical arcs to induce movement in a corpse) and from the golem story, in 1818 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley anonymously published her celebrated gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. It's the story of a Swiss scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who, shocked by the death of his mother, cultivates an impossible dream: creating an intelligent human being with perfect health and a long life. Frankenstein's illicit studies, which include dissecting corpses stolen from cemeteries, allow him to obtain the knowledge necessary to turn his dream into reality. But the creature, deformed and with superhuman strength, escapes his creator.

Even more so than the golem, then, the figure of Frankenstein (a name often misapplied to the monster itself) became a real modern myth, drawing his mythical power from the fear that technological progress can escape man's control. It is no surprise, then, that many consider Frankenstein the first true science-fiction novel.

Throughout the 1800s, there were stories and novels telling of unusual mechanical or artificial creatures. In "Sandman" (1815), writer E.T.A. Hoffmann told the story of a love between a man and a mechanical doll. The Steam Man of the Prairies (1815), a dime novel by Edward S. Ellis, is about a big mechanical steam man used to carry coaches across prairies.

Luis Senarens, known as the "American Jules Verne," in 1885 imagined the first mechanical man activated by electricity in his book Frank Reade and His Electric Man. The following year, Frenchman Mathias Villiers de l'Isle-Adam first used the word android in a novel, L'Eve Future, in which he imagined inventor Thomas Edison creating an almost perfect artificial woman.

Even in my country of Italy, the subject has fascinated our literati. Ippolito Nievo, in his 1860 novel Storia Filosofica dei Secoli Futuri (Philosophical History of Future Centuries), imagined that in the future there would be "man-machines," which he labeled an invention "that surpasses anything man has ever imagined." Much more modestly, but with a genial stroke of fantasy that still warms the hearts of children today, Carlo Collodi imagined in 1883 that a block of wood could take on life and transform into a boy, Pinocchio. It's true that Pinocchio is a fairy tale, but the story contains all of the fundamental elements of future tales about androids (including Steven Spielberg's sci-fi movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence).

Robots and Androids

It wasn't until 1921 that the very first true robots made their appearance in the three-part drama by Czech author Karel Čapek titled R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). These robots (more properly androids because they have human features) are the product of Rossum's factory and are used as low-cost laborers. The dream of the owner of the factory is to free the human race from slavery and physical work, but the effects are catastrophic. Humanity reacts by embracing all sorts of vices and idleness, allowing robots to take control and aim for inevitable human extinction.

But if R.U.R. was the first to introduce the word robot, the most famous android of the 1920s certainly is femme-bot Maria from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927). The complex plot devised by Lang, set in a disquieting future world with strong class separation, sees Maria as an evil creature who creates dissent among the masses in revolt.

Although certainly the most famous, Lang's robot was not the first mechanical android in cinema. That medal goes to magician Harry Houdini, who in 1919 introduced one such creature in his cliffhanger serial for the cinema titled The Master Mystery. Here, the robot, called Automaton, is at the service of a criminal gang against whom Houdini, star of the series, has to fight. By the end of his adventures, Houdini is able to destroy the armor of the robot and discover--hidden inside the robot--the boss of the gang. It was, then, a half robot. Or perhaps it could have been called a cyborg: a cybernetic organism made of both artificial and biological parts.

From the 1930s on, the idea of the automaton, the robot, or the replicant artificially created by man has become very popular and is constantly seen in sci-fi novels and films. From the many books about robots by Isaac Asimov to movies like Westworld, Star Wars, Terminator, Blade Runner, Alien, RoboCop, Star Trek, and so on, the subject has never lost its appeal. It will certainly continue to fascinate people, at least until the day when robots become so common that nobody takes notice of them anymore. If such a day ever comes, that is.

Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro's photo

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at