Serious Fun

Does joy drive civilization?

By Sarah Reisert | March 29, 2018
Photo of automaton hand drawing a picture on paper

Henri Maillardet’s automaton draws a picture of a boat at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, 2012. The machine, built around 1800, can draw four pictures and transcribe three poems (two in French and one in English).

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Steven Johnson. Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. Riverhead Books, 2016. 336 pp. $30.

To a small, curious boy, Merlin’s Mechanical Museum must have seemed like heaven. Even its name sounded magical, though it wasn’t named for the Arthurian wizard but rather for John Joseph Merlin, clockmaker, inventor, and showman. The museum housed some of Merlin’s innovations, both practical (a self-propelled wheelchair) and amusing (an early carousel).

Imagine this boy, around eight years old, visiting Merlin’s museum in 1801 with his mother. He flits from machine to machine, amusement to amusement, pulling his mother along by her skirts and gesturing excitedly with his tiny hands. The aging Merlin sees something in the boy, perhaps a younger version of himself or just a kindred spirit who will carry the torch into an increasingly mechanized future long after Merlin is gone. The inventor invites the boy up to his private workshop to see two creations that aren’t on display: a pair of miniaturized automata, maybe a foot or two tall. One automaton holds an eyeglass, walks across a 4-foot space, and bows to her audience. The other is a dancer with an animated bird.

The automata would have captivated anybody, but they take special hold of the boy’s imagination and inspire him to study mathematics and machines. Decades later, when Merlin’s wonders go up for auction, the boy—now a man—makes sure he is in the audience and buys the dancer (now in dusty disrepair) for 35 pounds. He brings her home, fixes her up, and proudly displays her just a few feet from his own invention, the difference engine, the first calculating machine. The man is Charles Babbage, best known today as the father of the computer.

Babbage’s attempts to build something practical, important, transformational, and visionary led to his modern fame. Merlin, the inventor of the roller skate and other amusing diversions, is just a footnote in history. But would you have Babbage without Merlin? Without the trifles that amuse us or the trends that captivate us (and the commercial rewards that come with giving people what they want), would history have followed the same path? Steven Johnson replies with an unequivocal no, an answer he defends in his book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. Keep in mind, play is very broadly defined in this book, going far beyond the toys and games we commonly associate with the term. Johnson’s play is a combination of novelty, leisure, and pleasure, everything from taverns to spices—anything we don’t specifically need that brings us some amount of joy.

Those of you familiar with Babbage’s story are no doubt thinking, “Hold up. What about Joseph-Marie Jacquard? Without his loom and the punch cards that programmed it to make intricate woven designs, you don’t have Babbage’s vision for his computer—the analytical engine—or Ada Lovelace’s programming. And by the way the loom is a commercial invention, something designed to make money and not a toy.” Yes and no. Yes, Babbage’s difference engine owed a huge debt to Jacquard’s loom, a debt Babbage acknowledged. In fact Babbage owned a copy of the famous portrait of Jacquard woven by his eponymous loom and kept it in his home along with Merlin’s dancer. (It’s as if Babbage was building a little Mechanical Museum of his own.)

But you don’t need to develop a complicated, expensive machine that weaves fancy textiles unless you have huge public demand for fancy textiles. Perhaps we’ve been teaching it backward all these years; perhaps technology comes in the wake of desire.

Fabric and fashion are particular movers of innovation from way back. Nobody needs clothing dyed purple, for example, but it’s delightful, especially in a world where it’s rare. The drive to find the shellfish used to make the distinctively colored dye led ancient Phoenician sailors out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic, a threshold moment in human exploration.

England’s demand for trendy, imported cotton fabrics was so high at the end of the 17th century it threatened the country’s wool industry, leading Parliament to pass a number of protectionist acts. These protections didn’t slow demand for cotton but did lead to innovations in cotton processing and to the development of cotton fields in some of Britain’s warmer possessions, such as the southern American colonies. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made the crop a tremendously profitable business for the new nation, and the region became the source of two-thirds of the world’s cotton (80% of which went to the former mother country, Great Britain). But while the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds from the fibers, it did not reduce the demand for slaves to grow and pick the crop; so the number of slaves imported to the American South soared.

Slavery, of course, is at the heart of the American Civil War, but Johnson asks us to take a very long view: there’s no Civil War without slavery; slavery on a large scale existed because of the demand for cotton; there’s no demand for cotton without Britain’s “calico madams” desiring fashionable dresses 150 years before the first shot was fired. This string of cause and effect is not uncommon, Johnson says: “Some of the most appalling epochs of slavery and colonization began with a new taste or fabric developing a market, and unleashed a chain of brutal exploitation to satisfy that market’s demands.”

Happily, music is not one of those enjoyments that has left destruction in its wake. Unlike food and shelter, music is not essential to life, and yet bone flutes have existed for 40,000 years. Forty thousand years ago, despite living in caves and hunting mammoths and generally trying not to die, our human ancestors were carving animal bones into musical instruments just because the sounds were delightful. Some of the ancient flutes even play perfect fourths and fifths, pleasing harmonies to the human ear. And these are just the instruments that have survived; drums, made of less durable materials, have been around far longer, maybe even 100,000 years. Imagine 100,000 years of music.

As soon as humans learned to “program” machines in the 9th century, they coaxed them into playing music. And that’s pretty much all our machines did for 800 years—play music. That only changed in the 18th century, when Jacques de Vaucanson realized his work building flute-playing automata might translate to programming a loom to make cloth with fancy designs. (But the idea didn’t really take off until Jacquard started working on it.) Vaucanson’s ideas opened the door to machines that could do useful things, but it certainly took long enough. The first keyboard instrument was invented in the 3rd century BCE, and it took people 21 more centuries to put letters on the keys and make a typewriter. (One of the earliest typewriters was based on a piano keyboard.)

Wonderland also covers the spice trade, taverns and coffeehouses, games and gambling, and other delights that not only make us who we are as individuals (what’s life without chess?) but have shaped the world as a whole. (Did you know the map of the Muslim spice trade from 900 CE corresponds almost exactly to the map of Muslim populations around the world today?) And if you look just at the amusements discussed in this book, the list of what they generated is astounding: “public museums, the age of exploration, the rubber industry, stock markets, programmable computers, the industrial revolution, robots, the public sphere, global trade, probability-based insurance policies, the American Revolution, clinical drug trials, the LGBT rights movement, [and] celebrity culture.”

Of all of them Johnson has a special place in his heart for public spaces, such as coffeehouses, taverns, and zoos. That he can go to his local public park in Brooklyn and see people of all faiths, colors, ages, nationalities, and sexual orientations enjoying a sunny weekend together in peace and safety is a miracle hundreds of years in the making. Small towns of like-minded people have been around for centuries if not millennia, but diverse communities spending weekends together at play? Perhaps that’s the most surprising achievement of all.