An Ode to Westworld’s Mechanical Horse

Apr 24, 2018 · 8 min read
Is there a story behind the series’ most iconic symbol?

Of all the twists and turns in Sunday’s Westworld premiere, one stands above the rest.

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Sure, the program was loaded to the brim with the shocking reveals that have become standard for the series, but a single moment in the opening credits has weighed heaviest on my mind. I’m talking, of course, about the mechanical horse — an icon which was devastatingly absent from the series’ updated opening sequence, and a symbol which flawlessly captures everything that Westworld is and will continue to be. It’s the ultimate paradox, representing freedom and liberation, yet at the same time, a narrative wrought with limitation and oppression.

Mechanical horse, you will be missed. And dear reader, if you’re curious about what this symbol actually represents, keep scrolling. The history here is far more nuanced than you might think.

No spoilers. Promise.

RIP Robot Horse (2016–2018), gone but never forgotten.

Westworld is all about subtlety, and not just in its storytelling — the show boasts some of the most symbolic imagery in television, and it never takes fans very long to drill down into the deep, rich, gooey metaphor behind every detail in every frame. It’s no surprise, then, that a symbol like the horse fits right into the Westworld mold: it’s a tried-and-true icon of freedom, strength, and independence. This representation is almost universal, from Native American iconography to Greek mythology, and even in the Chinese Zodiac: “The animal gives people an impression of independence and integrity. Its spirit is recognized to be the Chinese people’s ethos — making unremitting efforts to improve themselves with passion and diligence.”

But given humanity’s longstanding relationship with horses, this symbolism seems a bit ill-informed. From the years between about 4000 BCE and about 1802 with the invention of the locomotive, the horse was mankind’s tool of choice. For agriculture, transportation, and even for war, the domesticated horse helped mobilize our species past the stone age. To quote an article from The Atlantic:

“For most of human history, horses have been, primarily, a technology. An intimate technology, yes — people named their horses, and groomed them, and sometimes loved them — but horses were, for the most part, tools: They helped humanity to get around and get things done.”

And yet, despite the heavy domestication, the horse still encapsulates freedom across the globe. Perhaps as mankind grew closer to the animal, it came to represent our better, more “natural” half — something closer to the wild than we could ever be. Also horses can’t vomit, so that’s pretty cool too.

But the mechanical horse is where things get really interesting.

I’m no patent clerk, but this seems overly simple.

In the early 19th Century, alongside engineering that would bring us the train engine and (eventually) the automobile, there existed a dedicated cohort of designers obsessed with re-creating the horse as a machine. Again, from The Atlantic:

Before we dreamed of driverless cars, we dreamed of horseless horses.

This urge was hardly new; the idea of a “clockwork horse” dated back to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, but once horses started to be replaced by machinery, the endeavor took on new life. The horse had represented nature’s most impressive feat of engineering — until it became bested by gears and cogs and boilers. Many engineers wanted to prove that, truly, the horse was the most perfect design imaginable. By taking inspiration from the natural world and applying this knowledge to emerging industry, the horse could be elevated back onto its pedestal as the ultimate achievement of evolution.

Doesn’t look like anything to me.

This didn’t go so well.

The first modern attempt at an automated, robotic horse dates to 1813 with the Steam Horse Locomotive, also known as “Brunton’s Traveller.” Just for context, while the train industry began just a few years prior, it would be another several decades before we advanced towards the automobile. At the time, the horse was still the preferred (and often the best-equipped) method for transport over non-rail terrain. The Steam Horse was designed to combine the early locomotive with the strength and agility of the horse, with two leg-like pistons attached to the boiler. To quote the Catskill Archive:

“Brunton was aware that the action of the horse up to that time had been the most successful means of hauling vehicles, and the question arose, why not utilize the action of the horse mechanically?”

Amazingly…the design did not work. Upon its unveiling, the engine exploded while bolting along “at a speed of three miles an hour.”

This certainly wouldn’t be the last time that engineers tried to improve the design of machines by taking inspiration from the horse: an attempt at biomimicry that, as of the publishing of this article, has proven to be less-than-successful.

Definitely futuristic. Definitely.

In the 1960s, General Electric almost hit the jackpot with something they called “The Walking Truck” which was designed to carry heavy gear through difficult terrain. And sure, it looked fantastic, but the machine required 50 gallons of oil per minute and never made it through testing. There’s a reason we’re not riding Walking Trucks to work every morning.

Today, we’re getting even closer with the Wildcat, a production of Boston Dynamics that “uses a galloping gait much like a dog or horse and leans into turns in order to maintain traction and balance.” Finally, we’re close.

Sigh. Yeah that’s about right.

However, in addition to improved mechanical performance, the search for an artificial horse also emerged as an attempt to convince the broader populous that machines were, well…nice. Many designers at that time (unlike General Electric or Boston Dynamics would later do) seemed to really embrace the “horse-ness” of their work, largely in an attempt to lull customers into a sense of security. Everyday folk knew horses, but machines were unfamiliar and scary — a term coined as autophobia in the very late 1800s. Horses were a return to a safe, wholesome past.

What a time to be alive.

And now we start to see the paradox of the mechanical horse unfold. As much as real, natural animals like the horse can represent strength and freedom, the artificial recreation is an exact antithesis: something that is a false promise of independence or autonomy. These inventions throughout the last few centuries did not simply try to learn from the horse — they attempted to replace it, or even more appropriately, to improve on it. To again quote The Atlantic (but c’mon, it’s a great article) there is “only one species we humans have seen fit to imitate with our machines…horses have held a special place in human hearts.”

Let’s look at this dynamic through another lens: language. The word “machine” was not remarkably prevalent in English text before the 1880s, but after the dawn of the modern transportation industry, a surge in that terminology lead to a steady decline in how often “horse” appeared in our written word. This trend continued to, amazingly, result in a second remarkable shift in our dialect:

Gotta love the Ngram

The word “freedom” skyrockets during an age when machines were becoming commonplace and horses were losing their footing in industrialized society. As the universal symbol for freedom became less valuable, the ideals became more widespread.

(And, sure, there were a lot of other things happening between 1910 and 1950 that lead to these changes too. If you’d like me to spend months of research on a dissertation covering the nuances here, send me a message. I’ll respond.)

Even with sweeping, abridged looks at history, the paradox of the mechanical horse is something truly inspiring. For over two centuries, there has been a longstanding, fruitless attempt at creating the perfect mechanical horse simulacrum. This pursuit spawned from an early admiration of the horse as a tool…but when that relationship was changed by the dawn of locomotion and automobiles, the horse became idealized as an animal free from the bonds of human machination.

The mechanical horse represents a yearning to create freedom; a desire to manufacture an illusion of independence and strength, but under man’s control. It is a symbol that takes inspiration from real, natural beauty, but renders it false and (largely) impractical. A true mechanical horse is a fool’s errand — something that strives to be better than both beast and machine, yet fails to triumph over either.

And there it was, in the opening sequence of a groundbreaking television series that called to into question the balance of freedom, bondage, and machines. Westworld, you brilliant fool. You did it again.

Thanks to The Oatmeal for having created this gem.

So where do we go from here? For starters, I have a whole new respect for Boston Dynamics for taking up the reins on a project nearly two centuries in the making. The further strides we can make towards creating an artificial horse and not using 50 gallons of fuel per minute, the more impressed I’ll become.

More more so, the story of the mechanical horse makes me value how grounded the ethics of Westworld truly are. Humanity doesn’t quite have the power to replicate the efficiency and elegance of nature, but we’ve been trying for hundreds — if not thousands — of years. It seems to be our species’ prerogative to twist around our own symbolic appreciation for nature into something we control — even if that means simply recreating something evolution designed, dozens of times over.

And so, rest easy, galloping mechanical horse from the Westworld opening titles. You will be sorely missed; a paradoxical reminder of the follies of human history. Maybe I’ll write about a mechanical buffalo next, since that seems to be the next big thing.

Or, more likely…

I am VERY tempted to write about Robo-Bee from Richie Rich. Ooh boy this one will get weird.


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