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The Wizard

Mimicry and invention. Splendor of the haptograph. Not just the replication of familiar tactile sensations, but capacity to explore new combinations–pressures, touches, never experienced before. Adventures of feeling. Who can say what new sensations will be awakened, what unknown desires? Unexplored realms of the tangible. The frontiers of touch (231). 

Millhauser’s story “The Wizard of West Orange” tips its hat to Thomas Edison’s ingenuity, though it focuses more on the things he didn’t make money from than those that he did. The Wizard, Edison, is the commander of a multitude of projects within his “factory” of invention, as described by Millhauser. In this era of invention, everything seemed to be a possibility. You could talk to a friend across town without ever having to leave your parlor. You could record your own voice and play it back to yourself, every inflection caught, every word intoned. Messages fly from wire to wire, dolls speak, photographs move. Almost every sense is accounted for but touch. And this is the sense that defines the invention that is explored here.

Edison, though interested in the haptograph, the machine that creates a sense of touch, spends very little time on the ingenuity of it and is more concerned with the way it will make money. It is the narrator and Kistenmacher who have become intellectually enchanted with this idea and mean to improve upon it. The narrator himself is the one from whom we learn, written in the most poetically scientific way, just what it is that the haptograph does to the skin. This seems to be the fantastic element of the story, but only because this imaginative technology has not been perfected, and seems to pose some existential questions that the narrator and the world cannot answer yet.

Out of all of Millhauser’s stories, this last one is my favorite. The allusion to the fantastic  imagination of Thomas Edison calls upon the idea that all that we find fantastic in the world today may turn out not to be fantastic in the future. Bring a talking doll to 1522 and they’ll burn you as a witch. What would humanity do once given the power to feel without ever touching anything or anyone. “Perfect for Germaphobes!” the slogan might say. But that is only if human beings continue to discover and explore, create and invent. How much more modern can we get? I love the way Millhauser writes and it made this story even more interesting for being based upon real facts, real people, and real inventions. Great ending to a great collection and semester.

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