Almost sixty ears old - but more actual than ever:
S. Lem "The Washing Machine Tragedy"(first half only - you can find rest of it online)
Shortly after my return from the Eleventh Voyage, the papers began to devote increasing space
to the competition between two large washing-machine manufacturers, Newton and Snodgrass.
It was probably Newton who first marketed washers so automated that they themselves
separated the white laundry from the colored, and after scmbbing and wringing out the clothes, pressed,
darned, hemmed, and adorned them with beautifully embroidered monograms of the owner, and sewed
onto towels uplifting, stirring maxims such as "The early robot catches the oilcan." Snodgrass's response
to this was a washer that composed quatrains for the embroidering, commensurate with the customer's
cultural level and aesthetic requirements. Newton's next model embroidered sonnets; Snodgrass reacted
with a model that kept family conversation alive during television intermissions. Newton attempted to nip
this escalation in the bud; no doubt everyone remembers his full-page ads containing a picture of a
sneering, bug-eyed washer and the words: "Do you want your washing machine to be smarter than you?
Of course not!" Snodgrass, however, completely ignored this appeal to the baser instincts of the public,
and in the next quarter introduced a machine that washed, wmng, soaped, rinsed, pressed, starched,
darned, knitted, and conversed, and — in addition — did the children's homework, made economic
projections for the head of the family, and gave Freudian interpretations of dreams, eliminating, while you
waited, complexes both Oedipal and gerontophagical. Then Newton, in despair, came out with the
Superbard, a versifier-washer endowed with a fine alto voice; it recited, sang lullabies, put babies on the
potty, charmed away warts, and paid ladies exquisite compliments. Snodgrass parried with an
instructor-washer under the slogan: "Your washing machine will make an E instein out of you!" Contrary
to expectations, however, this model did poorly; business had fallen off 35 percent by the end of the
quarter when a financial review reported that Newton was preparing a dancing washer. Snodgrass
decided, in the face of imminent min, to take a revolutionary step. Buying up the appropriate rights and
licenses from interested parties for a sum of one million dollars, he constmcted, for bachelors, a washing
machine endowed with the proportions of the renowned sexpot Mayne Jansfield, in platinum, and
another, the Curlie McShane model, in black. Sales immediately jumped 87 percent. His opponent
appealed to Congress, to public opinion, to the DAR, and to the PTA. But when Snodgrass kept
supplying stores with washers of both sexes, more and more beautiful and seductive, Newton gave in and
introduced the custom-built washers, which received the figure, coloring, size, and l ik eness chosen by the
customer according to the photograph enclosed with his order. While the two giants of the
washing-machine industry thus engaged in all-out war, their products began to exhibit unexpected and
dangerous tendencies. The wet-nurse washers were bad enough, but washers that led to the ruin of
promising young men and women, that tempted, seduced, and taught bad language to children — they
were a serious family problem, not to mention washers with which one could cheat on one's husband or
wife! Those manufacturers of washing machines who still remained in business told the public, in ads, that
the Jansfield-McShane washer represented an abuse of the high ideals of automated laundering (which
was intended, after all, to strengthen and support the domestic way of life), since this washer could hold
no more than a dozen handkerchiefs or one pillowcase, the rest of its interior being occupied by
machinery that had not a thing to do with laundering — quite the contrary. These appeals had no effect.
The snowballing cult of beautiful washers even tore a considerable part of the public away from their
television sets. And that was only the beginning. Washers endowed with full spontaneity of action formed
clandestine groups and engaged in shady operations. Whole gangs of them entered into cahoots with
criminal elements, became involved with the underworld, and gave their owners terrible problems.
Congress saw that it was time to intervene with legislative action in this chaos of free enterprise,
but before its deliberations had produced a remedy, the market was glutted with wringers that had curves
no one could resist, with genius floor polishers, and with a special armored model of washing machine,
the Shotamatic; allegedly designed for children playing cowboys and Indians, this washer, after a simple
modification, could destroy any target with rapid fire. During a rumble between the Struzelli gang and the
tenor of Manhattan, the Byron Phums — this was when the Empire State Building was blown up —
among the casualties on both sides were more than one hundred and twenty cooking appliances armed to
Then Senator MacFlacon's Act went into effect. According to this law, an owner was not held
responsible for the actions of his intelligent devices to the extent that such occurred without his
knowledge or consent. Unfortunately, the law opened the way for numerous abuses. Owners entered
into secret pacts with their washers or wringers, so that, when the machine committed a crime, the
owner, hauled into court, got off by invoking the MacFlacon Act.
It became necessary to amend this law. The new MacFlacon-Glumbkin Act granted intelligent
devices a limited legal status, chiefly as regarded culpability. It stipulated punishments in the form of five,
ten, twenty-five, and fifty years of forced washing, or of floor polishing augmented by deprivation of oil,
and there were physical punishments up to and including short-circuiting. But the implementation of this
law also encountered obstacles. For example, the Humperlson case: the washer, when charged with the
perpetration of numerous holdups, was taken apart by its owner, and the pile of wires and pipes was
placed before the court. An amendment was then added to the law — known henceforth, as the
MacFlacon-Glumbkin-Ramphomey Act — establishing that the making of any alteration in an
electrobrain under investigation constituted a punishable offense.
Then the Ciaccopocorelli case. Ciaccopocorelli's sink frequently dressed in its owner's suits,
proposed marriage to various women, and swindled them out of their money. When caught in flagrante
by the police, the sink dismantled itself before the eyes of the astounded detectives, whereupon it lost all
memory of the crime and therefore could not be punished. There followed the
MacFlacon-Glumbkin-Ramphomey-Hemmling-Piaffki Act, according to which a brain that dismantled
itself in order to avoid trial would be summarily scrapped.
This law, it seemed, would serve to deter any electrobrain from criminal activity, since such a
machine, like any sentient being, possessed the instinct of self-preservation. It turned out, however, that
accomplices of the criminal washers were buying their scrapped remains and rebuilding them. A proposal
to add an antiresunection clause to the MacFlacon Act, though approved by a congressional committee,
was torpedoed by Senator Davis; shortly thereafter it was discovered that Senator Davis was a washer.
It has been the custom, since then, to tap congressmen before each session; a two-and-a-half-pound
mallet is traditionally used for this purpose.
The Murdstone case came next. Murdstone's washer flagrantly tore his shirts, mined radio
reception throughout the neighborhood with static, propositioned old men and juveniles, telephoned
various individuals and — impersonating its owner — extorted money from them; it invited the neighbors'
floor polishers and washers in to look at postage stamps but then performed immoral acts upon them;
and in its spare time the machine indulged in vagrancy and panhandling. Brought before a court, it
presented the testimony of a licensed electrical engineer, Edgar P. Dusenberry, which stated that the
aforesaid washer was subject to periodic fits of insanity, as a result of which fits it was beginning to
imagine that it was human. Experts summoned by the court con fir med this diagnosis, and Murdstone's
washer was acquitted. No sooner was the acquittal pronounced than it pulled out a Luger and with three
shots took the life of the assistant prosecutor, who had called for the machine's shortcircuiting. It was
arrested but later released on bail. The court was faced with a predicament: the washer's certified insanity
precluded its indictment; nor could it be placed in an asylum, there being no institutions for mentally ill
washers. The legal solution came only with the
MacFlacon-Glumbkin-Ramphomey-Hemmling-Piaffki-Snow-Juarez Act, and it came in the nick of time,
for the Murdstone casus was generating a tremendous public demand for electrobrains non compos
mentis, and some companies had actually begun to produce intentionally deranged machines. At first
there were two versions — the Sadomat and the Masomat. But Newton (who prospered phenomenally,
having filled — as the most progressive of the manufacturers — 30 percent of his firm's board of directors
with washers, to serve in an advisory capacity at the general meeting of shareholders) turned out a
universal machine, the Sadomastic. It was suited equally well for beating or for being beaten, and had an
incendiary attachment for pyromaniacs and iron feet for fetishists. Rumors that he was preparing to turn
out a special model, the Narcissimatic, were spread maliciously by the competition. The law now
provided for the establishment of special asylums where perverted washers, floor polishers, and the like
would be co nfi ned.
Meanwhile, hordes of mentally sound products of Newton, Snodgrass, et al., upon gaining legal
status, began taking advantage of their constitutional rights. They banded together spontaneously, formed
such groups as the Humanless Society and the League of Electronic Egalitarianism, and held pageants,
such as the Miss Universe Washing Machine Contest.
Congress strove to keep up with this furious pace of development and to curb it with legislation.
Senator Groggs deprived intelligent appliances of their right to acquire real estate; Congressman
Caropka, of their copyright in the area of the fine arts - which, again, led to a rash of abuses, since
creative washers began hiring less talented, albeit human writers, in order to use their names in publishing
essays, novels, dramas, etc. Finally, the
Sacks-Holloway-LeBlanc Act stated that intelligent machines could not be their own property but
belonged only to the human who had acquired or constructed them, and that their progeny were lik ewise
the property of said owner(s). It was generally believed that the law now covered all contingencies and
would prevent situations that could not be resolved legally. It was an open secret, of course, that wealthy
electrobrains, having made their fortune in stock-market speculation or occasionally in outright
skulduggery, continued to prosper by concealing their maneuverings behind fictitious, supposedly human
companies or corporations. There were already many people who, for material gain, rented their
identities to intelligent machines, not to mention those hired by electronic mi ll ionaires: as living secretaries,
servants, mechanics, and even laundresses and accountants.
Sociologists observed two principal developmental trends in this area of interest to us. On the
one hand, a certain proportion of the kitchen robots yielded to the temptations of human life and tried as
much as possible to adapt to the civ iliz ation in which they found themselves; individuals more aware and
resilient, on the other hand, showed tendencies to lay the foundations of a new, future, totally electrified
civi li zation. But the scientists were worried most by the unchecked increase in the robot population. The
de-eroticizers and disk brakes produced by both Snodgrass and Newton did not reduce this in the least.
The problem of robot children became urgent for the washing-machine manufacturers themselves, who
apparently had not foreseen this consequence of the continual improvement of their product. A number of
firms tried to counteract the proliferation of kitchen appliances by concluding a secret agreement that
restricted the supply of spare parts available to the market.
The results were not long in coming. Upon the arrival of a new shipment of goods, enormous
lines of stammering, crippled, or completely paralyzed washers, wringers, and floor polishers would form
at the gates of warehouses and stores; sometimes there were even riots. A peaceful kitchen robot could
not walk the streets after dark, for fear of robbers who would mercilessly take it apart and, leaving its
metal hull on the sidewalk, escape hastily with their spoils.
The problem of spare parts was the subject of prolonged but inconclusive debate in Congress.
Meanwhile, illegal parts factories sprang up overnight, financed partly by washing-machine associations.
Newton's Wash-o-matic model, moreover, invented and patented a method of producing parts from
substitute materials. But even this did not solve the problem totally. Washers picketed Congress,
demanding antitrust laws against discriminatory manufacturers. Certain pro-business congressmen
received anonymous letters that threatened them with the deprivation of many of their life-essential parts,
which, as Time rightly pointed out, was unjust, since human parts are irreplaceable.
Tool&die maker since yesterday