The World-Changing Power of Wonder, Delight, and Play

Every month, Heleo Book Club introduces new books by some of the great thinkers of our day. We work directly with the authors to find and share their compelling new ideas with the world. But that’s just the first step. The next step? Conversation. We believe the flow of ideas should go in all directions, and encourage readers to join in the conversation, sharing their own insights and thoughts across many disciplines, experiences, and perspectives.

The inaugural installment in our Heleo Book Club is Steven Johnson’s WONDERLAND: How Play Made the Modern World. In this engaging blend of history, technology, and storytelling, Steven argues that while people often dismiss the world of play and amusement as a trivial concern, many of our greatest creations came from “people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes.” As it turns out, the drive to entertain ourselves can be surprisingly innovative — even world-changing. — Heleo Editors

Sometime in the last decades of the 1700s, a Swiss inventor and showman with the delightful name John-Joseph Merlin opened an establishment in London called Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. In modern terms, Merlin’s shop was a kind of hybrid between a science museum, a gaming arcade, and a maker lab. You could marvel at moving mechanical dolls, try your luck at gambling machines, and enjoy the sweet melodies of music boxes. But Merlin was not simply an impresario; he was also a mentor of sorts, encouraging the “young amateurs of mechanism” to try their own hands at invention.

Merlin’s ingenuity took him in many directions: he invented a self-propelling wheelchair, a mechanical Dutch oven, a pump that automatically freshens air in hospital rooms, a deck of playing cards with braille-like encodings that enables blind people to play whist. He dabbled in the design of musical instruments. Today, he is probably best known for inventing roller skates. Some of these contraptions he displayed in the Mechanical Museum, but he kept two prize creations in his workshop in the attic above the museum: two miniature female automatons, no more than a foot or two tall. One creature walked across a four-foot space, holding an eyeglass and bowing respectfully toward the onlookers. The other was a dancer holding an animated bird.

In 1801, a mother brought her precocious eight-year-old son — a boy by the name of Charles Babbage — to visit Merlin’s. The old showman sensed something promising in the boy and offered to take him up to the attic with his mother to spark his curiosity even further. The boy was charmed by the walking lady. “The motions of her limbs were singularly graceful,” he would recall many years later. But it was the dancer that seduced him. “This lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner,” he wrote. “Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible.”

At the time, it must have seemed like a small moment, meaningful only in the intimate circle of a mother trying to entertain and amuse her child, but in fact that encounter in Merlin’s attic set off a chain of events that are still shaping society today. The automaton dancer stoked an obsession in Babbage, a fascination with mechanical devices that convincingly emulate the subtleties of human behavior. He earned degrees in mathematics and astronomy as a young scholar, but maintained his interest in machines by studying the new factory systems that were sprouting across England’s industrial north. Almost thirty years after his visit to Merlin’s, he published a seminal analysis of industrial technology, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, a work that would go on to play a pivotal role in Marx’s Das Kapital two decades later. Around the same time, Babbage began sketching plans for a calculating machine he called the Difference Engine, an invention that eventually led him to the Analytic Engine several years later, now considered to be the first programmable computer ever imagined.

The two machines belonged to different centuries: the dancer was the epitome of Enlightenment-era fantasy; the Difference Engine an augur of late twentieth-century computation.

We don’t know if the eight-year-old Babbage made a notable impression on Merlin himself. The showman died two years after Babbage’s visit, and his collection of wonders — including the captivating automatons — were sold to a rival named Thomas Weeks, who ran his own museum a few blocks away on Great Windmill Street. Weeks never put the dancer or the walking lady on display; they remained in his attic, gathering cobwebs until Weeks himself died in 1834, and the entire lot was put up for auction. Somehow, after all those years, Babbage found his way to the auction and purchased the dancer for thirty-five pounds. He refurbished the machine and put it on display in his Marylebone town house, a few feet away from the Difference Engine. In a sense, the two machines belonged to different centuries: the dancer was the epitome of Enlightenment-era fantasy; the Difference Engine an augur of late twentieth-century computation. The dancer was a thing of beauty, an amusement, a folly. The engine was, as its name suggested, a more serious affair: a tool for the age of industrial capitalism and beyond. But according to Babbage’s own account, the passion for mechanical thinking that led to the Difference Engine began with that moment of seduction in Merlin’s attic, in the “irresistible eyes” of a machine passing for a human for no good reason other than the sheer delight of the illusion itself.

Delight is a word that is rarely invoked as a driver of historical change. History is usually imagined as a battle for survival, for power, for freedom, for wealth. At best, the world of play and amusement belongs to the sidebars of the main narrative: the spoils of progress, the surplus that civilizations enjoy once the campaigns for freedom and affluence have been won. But imagine you are an observer of social and technological trends in the second half of the eighteenth century, and you are trying to predict the truly seismic developments that would define the next three centuries. Young Babbage staring at Merlin’s dancer and her “irresistible eyes” would be as telling a clue about that future as anything happening in Parliament or on the battlefield, foreshadowing the rise of mechanized labor, the digital revolution, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

When human beings devise and share experiences engineered to delight or amaze, they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns.

My new book — Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World — is an extended argument for that kind of clue: a folly, dismissed by many as a mindless amusement, that turns out to be a kind of artifact from the future. Wonderland is a history of play, a history of the pastimes that human beings have concocted to amuse themselves as an escape from the daily grind of subsistence. These stories matter because so many of these seemingly trivial discoveries ended up triggering changes in the realm of Serious History. The taste for coffee helped create the modern institutions of journalism; a handful of elegantly decorated fabric shops helped trigger the industrial revolution. When human beings devise and share experiences engineered to delight or amaze, they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns.

We owe a great deal of the modern world to people doggedly trying to solve a high-minded problem: how to construct an internal combustion engine or manufacture vaccines in large quantities. But a surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes. Everyone knows the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but if you do a paternity test on many of the modern world’s most important ideas or institutions, you will find, invariably, that leisure and play were involved in the conception as well.

It should be noted that this is not just a story about the affluent West. One of the most intriguing plot twists in the story of leisure and delight is how many of the devices or materials originated outside of Europe: the mesmerizing automata first designed in Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, the intriguing fashions of calico and chintz imported from India, the gravity-defying rubber balls invented by Mesoamericans, the clove and nutmeg first tasted by remote Indonesian islanders. In many ways, the story of play is the story of the emergence of a truly cosmopolitan worldview, a world bound together by the shared experiences of kicking a ball around on a field or sipping a cup of coffee. The pursuit of pleasure turns out to be one of the very first experiences to stitch together a global fabric of shared culture, with many of the most prominent threads originating outside Western Europe.

In 1772, Samuel Johnson paid a visit to one of the predecessors of Merlin’s Mechanical Museum, a showcase run by an engineer named James Cox, who became one of Merlin’s mentors. Johnson published an account of his visit in the Rambler. “It may sometimes happen,” he wrote, “that the greatest efforts of ingenuity have been exerted in trifles; yet the same principles and expedients may be applied to more valuable purposes, and the movements, which put into action machines of no use but to raise the wonder of ignorance, may be employed to drain fens, or manufacture metals, to assist the architect, or preserve the sailor.”

Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms. Approaching our history through the lens of play tells us something new about the past; I hope Wonderland will entertain readers with an interest in the twists and unlikely connections of this revisionist history. But the book also has implications for the present, and the future: in the design of our classrooms, in the kinds of experiences we try steer our kids towards as parents, in the way we cultivate innovative thinking in our workspaces. The institutions of society that so dominate traditional history — political bodies, corporations, religions — can tell you quite a bit about the current state of the social order. But if you are trying to figure at what’s coming next, you are often better off exploring the margins of play: the hobbies and curiosity pieces and subcultures of human beings devising new ways to have fun.

“Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.

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