Moxon's Master by Ambrose Bierce
'ARE you serious?--do you really believe that a
I got no immediate reply; Moxon was apparently
intent upon the coals in the grate, touching them
deftly here and there with the fire-poker till they
signified a sense of his attention by a brighter glow.
For several weeks I had been observing in him a
growing habit of delay in answering even the most
trivial of commonplace questions. His air, however,
was that of preoccupation rather than deliberation:
one might have said that he had 'something on his
Presently he said:
'What is a "machine"? The word has been variously
defined. Here is one definition from a popular
dictionary: "Any instrument or organization by
which power is applied and made effective, or a
desired effect produced." Well, then, is not a man a
machine? And you will admit that he thinks--or
thinks he thinks.'
'If you do not wish to answer my question,'
said, rather testily, 'why not say so?--all
that you say is mere evasion. You know well
enough that when I say "machine" I do not mean
a man, but something that man has made and controls.'
'When it does not control him,' he said, rising
abruptly and looking out of a window, whence nothing
was visible in the blackness of a stormy night.
A moment later he turned about and with a smile
said: 'I beg your pardon; I had no thought of evasion.
I considered the dictionary man's unconscious
testimony suggestive and worth something in the
discussion. I can give your question a direct answer
easily enough: I do believe that a machine thinks
about the work that it is doing.'
That was direct enough, certainly. It was not altogether
pleasing, for it tended to confirm a sad
suspicion that Moxon's devotion to study and work
in his machine-shop had not been good for him. I
knew, for one thing, that he suffered from insomnia,
and that is no light affliction. Had it affected his
mind? His reply to my question seemed to me then
evidence that it had; perhaps I should think differently
about it now. I was younger then, and
among the blessings that are not denied to youth
is ignorance. Incited by that great stimulant to controversy,
'And what, pray, does it think with--in the absence
of a brain?'
The reply, coming with less than his customary
delay, took his favourite form of counter-interrogation:
'With what does a plant think--in the absence of
'Ah, plants also belong to the philosopher class!
I should be pleased to know some of their conclusions;
you may omit the premises.'
'Perhaps,' he replied, apparently unaffected by
my foolish irony, 'you may be able to infer their
convictions from their acts. I will spare you the
familiar examples of the sensitive mimosa, the several
insectivorous flowers and those whose stamens
bend down and shake their pollen upon the entering
bee in order that he may fertilize their distant
mates. But observe this. In an open spot in my
garden I planted a climbing vine. When it was barely
above the surface I set a stake into the soil a yard
away. The vine at once made for it, but as it was
about to reach it after several days I removed it
a few feet. The vine at once altered its course, making
an acute angle, and again made for the stake.
This manoeuvre was repeated several times, but
finally, as if discouraged, the vine abandoned the
pursuit and ignoring further attempts to divert it,
travelled to a small tree, farther away, which it
'Roots of the eucalyptus will prolong themselves
incredibly in search of moisture. A well-known horticulturist
relates that one entered an old drain-pipe
and followed it until it came to a break, where a
section of the pipe had been removed to make way
for a stone wall that had been built across its course.
The root left the drain and followed the wall until
it found an opening where a stone had fallen out. It
crept through and following the other side of the
wall back to the drain, entered the unexplored part
and resumed its journey.'
'And all this?'
'Can you miss the significance of it? It shows the
consciousness of plants. It proves that they think.'
'Even if it did--what then? We were speaking,
not of plants, but of machines. They may be composed
partly of wood--wood that has no longer vitality
--or wholly of metal. Is thought an attribute
also of the mineral kingdom?'
'How else do you explain the phenomena, for
example, of crystallization?'
'I do not explain them.'
'Because you cannot without affirming what you
wish to deny, namely, intelligent co-operation, among
the constituent elements of the crystals. When soldiers
form lines, or hollow squares, you call it reason.
When wild geese in flight take the form of a letter
V you say instinct. When the homogeneous atoms of
a mineral, moving freely in solution, arrange themselves
into shapes mathematically perfect, or particles
of frozen moisture into the symmetrical and
beautiful forms of snowflakes, you have nothing to
say. You have not even invented a name to conceal
your heroic unreason.'
Moxon was speaking with unusual animation and
earnestness. As he paused I heard in an adjoining
room known to me as his 'machine-shop,' which no
one but himself was permitted to enter, a singular
thumping sound, as of someone pounding upon a
table with an open hand. Moxon heard it at the same
moment and, visibly agitated, rose and hurriedly
passed into the room whence it came. I thought it
odd that anyone else should be in there, and my
interest in my friend--with doubtless a touch of
unwarrantable curiosity--led me to listen intently,
though, I am happy to say, not at the keyhole. There
were confused sounds, as of a struggle or scuffle;
the floor shook. I distinctly heard hard breathing and
a hoarse whisper which said 'Damn you!' Then
all was silent, and presently Moxon reappeared and
said, with a rather sorry smile:
'Pardon me for leaving you so abruptly. I have a
machine in there that lost its temper and cut up
Fixing my eyes steadily upon his left cheek, which
was traversed by four parallel excoriations showing
blood, I said:
'How would it do to trim its nails?'
I could have spared myself the jest; he gave it no
attention, but seated himself in the chair that he had
left and resumed the interrupted monologue as if
nothing had occurred:
'Doubtless you do not hold with those (I need not
name them to a man of your reading) who have
taught that all matter is sentient, that every atom
is a living, feeling, conscious being. I do. There is no
such thing as dead, inert matter: it is all alive; all
instinct with force, actual and potential; all sensitive
to the same forces in its environment and susceptible
to the contagion of higher and subtler ones residing
in such superior organisms as it may be brought into
relation with, as those of man when he is fashioning
it into an instrument of his will. It absorbs something
of his intelligence and purpose--more of them
in proportion to the complexity of the resulting machine
and that of its work.
'Do you happen to recall Herbert Spencer's definition
of "Life"? I read it thirty years ago. He may
have altered it afterward, for anything I know, but
in all that time I have been unable to think of a
single word that could profitably be changed or
added or removed. It seems to me not only the best
definition, but the only possible one.
'"Life," he says, "is a definite combination of
heterogeneous changes, both simultaneous and successive,
in correspondence with external coexistences
'That defines the phenomenon,' I said, 'but gives
no hint of its cause.'
'That,' he replied, 'is all that any definition can
do. As Mill points out, we know nothing of cause
except as an antecedent--nothing of effect except as
a consequent. Of certain phenomena, one never occurs
without another, which is dissimilar: the first in
point of time we call cause, the second, effect. One
who had many times seen a rabbit pursued by a dog,
and had never seen rabbits and dogs otherwise,
would think the rabbit the cause of the dog.
'But I fear,' he added, laughing naturally enough,
'that my rabbit is leading me a long way from the
track of my legitimate quarry: I'm indulging in the
pleasure of the chase for its own sake. What I want
you to observe is that in Herbert Spencer's definition
of "life" the activity of a machine is included
--there is nothing in the definition that is not applicable
to it. According to this sharpest of observers
and deepest of thinkers, if a man during his period
of activity is alive, so is a machine when in operation.
As an inventor and constructor of machines I
know that to be true.'
Moxon was silent for a long time, gazing absently
into the fire. It was growing late and I thought it
time to be going, but somehow I did not like the
notion of leaving him in that isolated house, all alone
except for the presence of some person of whose
nature my conjectures could go no further than that
it was unfriendly, perhaps malign. Leaning toward
him and looking earnestly into his eyes while making
a motion with my hand through the door of his
workshop, I said:
'Moxon, whom have you in there?'
Somewhat to my surprise he laughed lightly and
answered without hesitation:
'Nobody; the incident that you have in mind was
caused by my folly in leaving a machine in action
with nothing to act upon, while I undertook the interminable
task of enlightening your understanding.
Do you happen to know that Consciousness is the
creature of Rhythm?'
'O bother them both!' I replied, rising and laying
hold of my overcoat. 'I'm going to wish you good
night; and I'll add the hope that the machine which
you inadvertently left in action will have her gloves
on the next time you think it needful to stop her.'
Without waiting to observe the effect of my shot I
left the house.
Rain was falling, and the darkness was intense. In
the sky beyond the crest of a hill toward which I
groped my way along precarious plank sidewalks
and across miry, unpaved streets I could see the
faint glow of the city's lights, but behind me nothing
was visible but a single window of Moxon's house.
It glowed with what seemed to me a mysterious and
fateful meaning. I knew it was an uncurtained aperture
in my friend's 'machine-shop,' and I had little
doubt that he had resumed the studies interrupted
by his duties as my instructor in mechanical consciousness
and the fatherhood of Rhythm. Odd, and in some degree humorous, as his convictions seemed
to me at that time, I could not wholly divest myself
of the feeling that they had some tragic relation to
his life and character--perhaps to his destiny--although
I no longer entertained the notion that they
were the vagaries of a disordered mind. Whatever
might be thought of his views, his exposition of them
was too logical for that. Over and over, his last words
came back to me: 'Consciousness is the creature of
Rhythm.' Bald and terse as the statement was, I now
found it infinitely alluring. At each recurrence it
broadened in meaning and deepened in suggestion.
Why, here (I thought) is something upon which to
found a philosophy. If Consciousness is the product
of Rhythm all things are conscious, for all have motion,
and all motion is rhythmic. I wondered if
Moxon knew the significance and breadth of his
thought--the scope of this momentous generalization;
or had he arrived at his philosophic faith by
the tortuous and uncertain road of observation?
That faith was then new to me, and all Moxon's
expounding had failed to make me a convert; but
now it seemed as if a great light shone about me, like
that which fell upon Saul of Tarsus; and out there in
the storm and darkness and solitude I experienced
what Lewes calls 'The endless variety and excitement
of philosophic thought.' I exulted in a new
sense of knowledge, a new pride of reason. My feet
seemed hardly to touch the earth; it was as if I were
uplifted and borne through the air by invisible
Yielding to an impulse to seek further light from
him whom I now recognized as my master and guide,
I had unconsciously turned about, and almost before
I was aware of having done so found myself again
at Moxon's door. I was drenched with rain, but felt
no discomfort. Unable in my excitement to find the
doorbell I instinctively tried the knob. It turned and,
entering, I mounted the stairs to the room that I had
so recently left. All was dark and silent; Moxon, as
I had supposed, was in the adjoining room--the
'machine-shop.' Groping along the wall until
found the communicating door I knocked loudly
several times, but got no response, which I attributed
to the uproar outside, for the wind was blowing a
gale and dashing the rain against the thin walls in
sheets. The drumming upon the shingle roof spanning
the unceiled room was loud and incessant.
I had never been invited into the machine-shop--
had, indeed, been denied admittance, as had all
others, with one exception, a skilled metal worker,
of whom no one knew anything except that his name
was Haley and his habit silence. But in my spiritual
exaltation, discretion and civility were alike forgotten,
and I opened the door. What I saw took all philosophical speculation out of me in short
Moxon sat facing me at the farther side of a small
table upon which a single candle made all the light
that was in the room. Opposite him, his back toward
me, sat another person. On the table between the two
was a chess-board; the men were playing. I knew
little of chess, but as only a few pieces were on the
board it was obvious that the game was near its
close. Moxon was intensely interested--not so
much, it seemed to me, in the game as in his antagonist,
upon whom he had fixed so intent a look that,
standing though I did directly in the line of his
vision, I was altogether unobserved. His face was
ghastly white, and his eyes glittered like diamonds.
Of his antagonist I had only a back view, but that
was sufficient; I should not have cared to see his
He was apparently not more than five feet in
height, with proportions suggesting those of a gorilla
--a tremendous breadth of shoulders, thick,
short neck and broad, squat head, which had a
tangled growth of black hair and was topped with
a crimson fez. A tunic of the same colour, belted
tightly to the waist, reached the seat--apparently a
box--upon which he sat; his legs and feet were not
seen. His left forearm appeared to rest in his lap;
he moved his pieces with his right hand, which
seemed disproportionately long.
I had shrunk back and now stood a little to one
side of the doorway and in shadow. If Moxon had
looked farther than the face of his opponent he
could have observed nothing now, except that the
door was open. Something forbade me either to
enter or to retire, a feeling--I know not how it
came--that I was in the presence of an imminent
tragedy and might serve my friend by remaining.
With a scarcely conscious rebellion against the indelicacy
of the act I remained.
The play was rapid. Moxon hardly glanced at the
board before making his moves, and to my unskilled
eye seemed to move the piece most convenient to his hand, his motions in doing so being
quick, nervous and lacking in precision. The response
of his antagonist, while equally prompt in the inception,
was made with a slow, uniform, mechanical and,
I thought, somewhat theatrical movement of the
arm, that was a sore trial to my patience. There
was something unearthly about it all, and I caught
myself shuddering. But I was wet and cold.
Two or three times after moving a piece the
stranger slightly inclined his head, and each time I
observed that Moxon shifted his king. All at once
the thought came to me that the man was dumb.
And then that he was a machine--an automaton
chess-player! Then I remembered that Moxon had
once spoken to me of having invented such a piece
of mechanism, though I did not understand that it
had actually been constructed. Was all his talk about
the consciousness and intelligence of machines
merely a prelude to eventual exhibition of this device
--only a trick to intensify the effect of its
mechanical action upon me in my ignorance of its
A fine end, this, of all my intellectual transports
--my 'endless variety and excitement of philosophic
thought'! I was about to retire in disgust
when something occurred to hold my curiosity. I
observed a shrug of the thing's great shoulders, as
if it were irritated: and so natural was this--so
entirely human--that in my new view of the matter
it startled me. Nor was that all, for a moment later
it struck the table sharply with its clenched hand.
At that gesture Moxon seemed even more startled
than I: he pushed his chair a little backward, as in
Presently Moxon, whose play it was, raised his
hand high above the board, pounced upon one of his
pieces like a sparrow-hawk and with the exclamation
'check-mate!' rose quickly to his feet and
stepped behind his chair. The automaton sat motionless.
The wind had now gone down, but I heard, at
lessening intervals and progressively louder, the
rumble and roll of thunder. In the pauses between
I now became conscious of a low humming or buzzing
which, like the thunder, grew momentarily
louder and more distinct. It seemed to come from
the body of the automaton, and was unmistakably
a whirring of wheels. It gave me the impression of
a disordered mechanism which had escaped the repressive
and regulating action of some controlling
part--an effect such as might be expected if a
pawl should be jostled from the teeth of a ratchetwheel.
But before I had time for much conjecture
as to its nature my attention was taken by the
strange motions of the automaton itself. A slight but
continuous convulsion appeared to have possession
of it. In body and head it shook like a man with palsy
or an ague chill, and the motion augmented every
moment until the entire figure was in violent agitation.
Suddenly it sprang to its feet and with a movement
almost too quick for the eye to follow shot
forward across table and chair, with both arms
thrust forth to their full length--the posture and
lunge of a diver. Moxon tried to throw himself backward
out of reach, but he was too late: I saw the
horrible thing's hand close upon his throat, his own
clutch its wrists. Then the table was overturned,
and candle thrown to the floor and extinguished, and
all was black dark. But the noise of the struggle was
dreadfully distinct, and most terrible of all were the
raucous, squawking sounds made by the strangled
man's efforts to breathe. Guided by the infernal hubbub,
I sprang to the rescue of my friend, but had
hardly taken a stride in the darkness when the whole
room blazed with a blinding white light that burned
into my brain and heart and memory a vivid picture
of the combatants on the floor, Moxon underneath,
his throat still in the clutch of those iron
hands, his head forced backward, his eyes protruding,
his mouth wide open and his tongue thrust out;
and--horrible contrast!--upon the painted face
of his assassin an expression of tranquil and profound
thought, as in the solution of a problem in
chess! This I observed, then all was blackness and
Three days later I recovered consciousness in a
hospital. As the memory of that tragic night slowly
evolved in my ailing brain I recognized in my attendant
Moxon's confidential workman, Haley. Responding
to a look he approached, smiling.
'Tell me about it,' I managed to say, faintly--
'all about it.'
'Certainly,' he said; 'you were carried unconscious
from a burning house--Moxon's. Nobody knows how you came to be there. You may have to
do a little explaining. The origin of the fire is a bit
mysterious, too. My own notion is that the house
was struck by lightning.'
'Buried yesterday--what was left of him.'
Apparently this reticent person could unfold himself
on occasion. When imparting shocking intelligence
to the sick he was affable enough. After some
moments of the keenest mental suffering I ventured
to ask another question:
'Who rescued me?'
'Well, if that interests you--I did.'
'Thank you, Mr. Haley, and may God bless you
for it. Did you rescue, also, that charming product
of your skill, the automaton chess-player that murdered
The man was silent a long time, looking away
from me. Presently he turned and gravely said:
'Do you know that?'
'I do,' I replied; 'I saw it done.'
That was many years ago. If asked to-day I
should answer less confidently.