In a self-referential loop the likes of which you really only find on the Internet, I was inspired to start thinking about this as a result of a post on Smithology that was partly inspired by my own reading of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.
It sounds complicated, but it’s not—Matt talks about a paper on cybernetics that he had been reading, which cites the Tin Woodman, otherwise known as Nick Chopper, as a precursor to the robots of 1930s’ science fiction.
And I thought, “Fair enough.”
But only briefly.
Because then I started wondering whether the piece also cites Tik-Tok, the mechanical man who makes his appearance in Ozma of Oz (1907)—Matt tells me it does—and that in turn reminded me of some exchanges between Tik-Tok and the Tin Woodman, which made me wonder whether the latter really is a robot, at all.
He could be a precursor to the robots of 1930s’ science fiction without himself being a robot, of course. But it seems to me that the situation is more complicated than that.
Tik-Tok is undoubtedly a robot: he was invented by two men in the Kingdom of Ev who were ultimately destroyed by their own artistry: one painted a river so lifelike that he fell in and drowned while trying to touch up some details on the far side, and the other built a ladder to the moon, which he found so enticing that he pulled up the ladder behind him and never returned.
He is also, he tells Dorothy, “the on-ly au-to-mati-ic me-chan-i-cal man they ev-er com-plet-ed” (Ozma of Oz, 45).
(Unfortunately, he does speak in that staccato fashion.)
But he is clearly a machine, and sentient only when fully wound (since he operates by clockwork). When imprisoned by the King of Ev, for example:
I shout-ed for help un-til my voice ran down; and then I walked back and forth in this lit-tle room un-til my ac-tion ran down; and then I stood still and thought un-til my thoughts ran down. Af-ter that I re-member noth-ing un-til you wound me up a-gain. (Ozma of Oz, 39)
For Tik-Tok, there is no clash here between science fiction and fantasy. In fact, he sees his existence as indicative of the latter, not the former, telling Dorothy, who has been speculating as to whether Ev is a fairy kingdom, “I do not sup-pose such a per-fect ma-chine as I am could be made in an-y place but a fair-y land” (Ozma of Oz, 40).
And he denies being alive. When the Scarecrow asks him point blank, he responds, “I am on-ly a ma-chine. But I can think and speak and act, when I am pro-per-ly wound up” (Ozma of Oz, 68).
And here’s the fascinating part: the Tin Woodman, who is a party to this conversation, immediately weighs in and rejects any comparison between himself and Tik-Tok:
I regret to say that you are greatly inferior to my friend the Scarecrow, and to myself. For we are both alive, and he has brains which do not need to be wound up, while I have an excellent heart that is continually beating in my bosom. (Ozma of Oz, 68-69)
The Tin Woodman does not see himself as mechanical? And his heart—the heart that we’re told in The Wizard of Oz is “a pretty heart, made entirely of silk and stuffed with sawdust” (155)—actually beats in his chest?
Of course, the idea of the heart beating might be exaggeration or imagination on the Tin Woodman’s part; he and the Scarecrow never do accept, as Dorothy does, that the Wizard is a humbug—and, indeed, they’re ultimately vindicated, when he returns to Oz to learn magic from Glinda the Good.
But I’m inclined to believe that his heart does beat, because it’s in keeping with his extraordinary origin story.
Nick Chopper, of course, starts life as a perfectly ordinary Munchkin man, whose love for a Munchkin maiden—whose name, revealed in The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918), is Nimmie Amee—attracts the ire of the witch to whom Nimmie Amee is in servitude. The witch enchants Nick’s axe, which “slips” as he works and chops off various limbs.
In each case, Nick replaces the limb with a tin prosthetic. When his head is removed, “at first I thought that was the end of me” (The Wizard of Oz, 42), but he is fortunate enough that the tinsmith who has been working on him is passing, and “he made me a new head out of tin” (The Wizard of Oz, 42).
This is where the ambiguities slip in.
There’s nothing more to the description than this: the Tin Woodman never explains whether he is aware while his head is lying separate from his body, whether there is a period of death before his metal head is reattached, or whether, in the latter case, the tinsmith has to transfer his brain from his first head to his second one.
The Tin Woodman himself has no qualm or concern about this: it is only the final stage of his alteration that concerns him, when his axe slips a final time and cuts his torso in half. Although this is replaced with a tin one, he loses his heart and, thus, his love for Nimmie Amee is also lost (until The Tin Woodman of Oz, when, as it turns out, she hasn’t been waiting for him to return, as he fondly hopes).
But he’s alive all the way through this experience; he is alive as a Munchkin wood chopper, and he is alive as a Tin Woodman—with no apparent delineation between the two states.
The Tin Woodman is not unique. Many other inhabitants of Oz are alive without being human—or, perhaps, “Munchkin” would be a better term than “human” here.
The clearest examples are the four people brought to life with the Powder of Life created by the Crooked Magician, Dr Pipt (though Dr Pipt’s involvement is ambiguous until The Patchwork Girl of Oz): Jack Pumpkinhead; the Gump; Scraps, The Patchwork Girl; and Bungle, the Glass Cat.
The Gump—as a composite creature created from sofas, palm leaves, a broomstick, and the head of a Gump, shot and mounted as a trophy on the wall—doesn’t last long before he begs to be restored to his former state. But when the head is remounted on Ozma’s palace wall, it remains alive and speaks randomly to visitors.
But Jack Pumpkinhead is an odd case; created in The Marvellous Land of Oz (1904), he spends the entire book crippled by the terror of his approaching death: with a body constructed of hardwood but a jack o’lantern head, he is devastated by his awareness that pumpkins eventually spoil. Though the Powder of Life is sprinkled evenly along his body as well as his head, it is the eventual spoilation of his head that he fears.
It is not until The Road to Oz (1909) that Jack learns he can carve himself a new face when he feels that his old one is spoiling.
Jack Pumpkinhead is alive—as are Scraps, Bungle, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman, where Tik-Tok is not.
So is the Tin Woodman—entirely made from tin, though later plated in nickel—a robot?
Many of the classic science-fiction novels and films that deal with the clash between humans and robots question whether robots are alive or not.
The Tin Woodman is certainly alive, for all that he is made from metal (barring his silk and sawdust heart)—with the ambiguity of his origin, the continuity of his memories of his early life, and his later attempts to track down the woman he loved when he was a Munchkin.
The Tin Woodman may be a progenitor of 1930s’ science fiction robots, but I’m not convinced he’s a robot himself.
(All the quotes from Ozma of Oz are taken from the 1985 Puffin paperback reprint.
All quotes from The Wizard of Oz are taken from the 1977 printing of the 1956 Grosset & Dunlap hardback.)