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Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first cyborg story

The Pale Blue Eye imagines how Edgar Allan Poe’s horror and detective stories might have been inspired by his time at West Point. But Poe also wrote what appears to be the first short story on cyborgs: "The Man that was Used Up" (1839).

The Pale Blue Eye now on Netflix movie poster
The Pale Blue Eye now on Netflix

Did you like The Pale Blue Eye which imagines Edgar Allan Poe’s time at West Point where he in real life served as cadet from 1830-1831? He helps Christian Bale solve a murder with occult overtones, with the implication that it inspired his detective and horror fiction.

But did you know that Poe also wrote science fiction- and what appears to be the first short story on cyborgs: "The Man that was Used Up" (1839) based on his military experience. Of course, the term cyborg wouldn’t appear until Martin Caidin’s 1972 book, Cyborg, which was made into The Six Million Dollar Man series.

The Man that was Used Up is a minor Poe story, you can read it in a few minutes for free. (Sorry Edgar, wish there was a way to go back in time with a Tardis and pay you royalties for it. Or at least bring you forward in time to see what you accomplished like the 11th Doctor did with Vincent Van Gogh.) The protagonist, a young Army officer, wants to meet a famous general. But there are Rumors and Innuendos and No One Wants to Say Anything- and it looks like we’re in one of Pae’s detective stories. The officer steels himself, travels to the General’s remote antebellum mansion. Seeing no activity, he decides to enter. Eventually in a bedroom he finds what looks like to be a pile of human limbs. The limbs begin to twitch and move, suggesting we’ve ventured into one of Poe’s horror stories. But no, the protagonist hears the voice of the General apologizing and calling for his manservant. The servant reassembles the General, as he narrates how he lost that arm at that campaign, that eye at that battle, and so on. The General provides a running commentary on who makes the best of each type of prosthetic with the same matter of factness that characters debate the merits of knock-off Nikon eye transplants in William Gibson’s Neuromancer series.

Case solved, it was a detective story after all. The General was a man used up by the ongoing Indian Wars and now there was almost nothing left of his biological body- yet his intellect remains and there’s no tinge of bitterness or depression, just gung ho serve my country with manly honor attitude on life.

Where did Poe get the idea? Well, it turns out that The Pale Blue Eye got some parts right: Poe actually went to the US Military Academy. And before that, Poe had enlisted in the Army in 1927 and even made Sergeant Major, then managed to get into West Point for officer training in 1930. He decided he had enough of the military and deliberately got himself court martialed in order to be discharged in 1931.

Engraving of Gen. Winfield Scott from
Gen. Winfield Scott from

So Poe had significant military experience. And, it would have been impossible for him not to have known of General Winfield Scott, The Grand Old Man of the Army, the Chuck Yeager of his day, the cool guy, that everyone in the military wonted to be like. Scott really did seem to have penchant for getting badly wounded or beat up- though no amputations- and probably was the inspiration for the story.

From a technical perspective, the two big challenges in cyborgs are

  • biomechanics (after all, hands and feet are complicated) and

  • tissue interfaces (cdopper wires in the brain are actually poisonous).

Scifi tends to concentrate either on the uses of cyborgs or whether they are human? Or both- RoboCup nailed that combo. But the discussion of humanity hides more immediate legal and dignity considerations: if my prosthetic hand has a built in USB drive, can my employer make me remove my hand at work to prevent industrial espionage?

There are no cyborgs, or robots of any kind, in The Pale Blue Eye, it’s just an enjoyable period detective piece.

And wasn’t Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter (Henry Melling) mesmerizing as Edgar Allan Poe? Yes, that’s the former child actor, unrecognizable because he lost a lot of weight at the end of the Harry Potter movies. The writing and Melling’s acting really makes for a sympathetic portrait of Poe. And the movie has dozens of subtle Easter Egg call outs to Poe’s most famous works. The Man that was Used Up isn’t one of them, but it’s pretty amazing that Poe saw cyborgs coming.

If you do want to learn more about how real world cyborgs stack up against the science fiction ones, my Science Robotics article is on the RTSF website behind the paywall. @SciRobotics Science Robotics has more articles on the big challenges and advances and the Springer Handbook of Robotics is always a good reference.


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