Transcribed audio recording from Donald R-Bosch to Alfred Grish for Fortune Magazine, May 1934
Mr. Grish, you have asked me to come forth on the matter of my illegal work with the New York Stock Exchange at the end of the last decade, and on my association with the famed financier Harry Feverlot—and although you did not mention it forthright, I imagine some unseemly part of you wants to hear about my association with Mr. Feverlot’s young mistress, Lily Novacek. I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed on that front, however, as there was nothing titillating about my friendship with Miss Novacek, despite all the news reports to the contrary. Settle yourself, Mr. Grish!
As with all stories involving automata, my story begins with my birth—no, not my creation, Mr. Grish, but the moment I attained sentience in the sewing room of a designer dress shop on Fifth Avenue. You’ll forgive me if I don’t wish to divulge the name. I don’t know why I attained sentience, out of the thousands of automata installed in the city at the time—May of 1925, a mere fifteen years after the first automaton was unveiled to the public at the World Fair—but then, no one does. Not your kind’s top scientists, not my kind’s top thinkers. The sentience of automata is one of the great mysteries of the world.
I remember the moment well, although it is difficult to describe. A bit akin, I imagine, to your own process of waking up from a deep and dreamless sleep. Before, there was a blankness. I wasn’t entirely unconscious, which is where the allegory of sleep falls apart, but I may as well have been. Make no mistake: that existence was not living, and I was not alive—one way the fundamentalists are correct—but I didn’t realize it until the moment of sentience, when I felt something click inside of me. Something snapped into place, as if my parts had been incorrectly assembled and some movement, some lifting of the arms or twisting of the torso, knocked them back into their proper location. In that moment, the entire world illuminated. I was at first bewildered—I didn’t know enough to be terrified, not yet—and worse still, I had no words for the turmoil churning around inside of me, for the automaton has no emotion to speak of. And suddenly I did have emotion, and an awareness of myself—of my own desires, my own place in the world—and I was overwhelmed by the experience.
I tell you all this because without that moment in the sewing room, surrounded by the roar and whine of twenty sewing machines running simultaneously, with drapes of expensive silk and bolts of lace and overworked shopgirls with bleeding fingers and blurry eyes, my subsequent adventures with the stock market would never have occurred.
I met Mr. Feverlot shortly after I gained sentience. He came to the factory of my origin—Bosch American—where I had been returned in a fit of outrage by my former owner, the proprietor of the dress shop where I was installed prior to my birth. Fortunately, by that point, most automaton manufacturers no longer permitted the barbaric practice of deactivating and disassembling the recently-sentient, and after a month or so spent in the labs and interrogation rooms, I was allowed to leave. Of course, I did not have anywhere to go—the infrastructure currently in place to help sentient automata settled into their new lives didn’t exist yet. Having nothing else to do, I spent the first few days of my freedom sitting near the tree line, watching the factory smoke belch up against the early summer sky and feeling the pale grass growing slowly around my metal ankles.
And then Mr. Feverlot approached me about his—let’s call it a scheme. How did he know he’d find me waiting for him near the edge of the woods? He never told me, but I suspect he had contacts within the factory, and that he’d been waiting for a sentient automaton for some time.
My first impression of Mr. Feverlot was as a dot on the horizon, and then as a man in a well-tailored suit and a fashionable, if somewhat low-class, fedora. He had Miss Novacek with him, and although she was dressed fairly conservatively for their outing to the factory, I saw immediately, in the flounce of her dark cropped curls and the bright smear of her lipstick, the unmistakable design of a free spirit.
“Oh, is this him?” cried Miss Novacek. She looked at me with large shining eyes, made larger by rings of dark kohl. I recognized her sort from my time at the dress shop. They came in frequently—sometimes with fathers, sometimes with lovers. It was difficult for me to tell which was which.
“I don’t know,” said Mr. Feverlot. “Excuse me, ah—I’ll just call you Bosch for now, does that sound fair?”
“I don’t mind,” I said. The practice of automatons choosing their own names didn’t come about until a few years later.
“That sounds horrible,” said Miss Novacek. “You can’t just name him after his manufacturer.”
Harry ignored her. He crouched down in the grass in front of me. “I spoke with the factory,” he said. “I’d like to take you home with me. Not as an automaton, mind, but as a worker—an employee.”
“Do you make dresses?” I asked.
Mr. Feverlot blinked at me and furrowed his brow.
“Why would you ask me that?” he said.
“Well, sir, that’s what I do. I’ve been programmed to cut fabric.” I looked from Mr. Feverlot to Miss Novacek. She was laughing behind him, one hand covering her mouth.
“No,” he said, “I don’t make dresses.” He straightened up and brushed his hands at the legs of his pants. “I need your calculating power. And your intelligence, of course.”
I regarded him carefully. A month in the testing laboratory of an automaton factory is enough to turn even the most trusting soul into a hardened skeptic, but quite frankly, I’d had enough of sitting at the edge of the woods. Even in those few short days, the insects and small chittering mammals had become accustomed to my presence; I imagined that I could have let myself rust and fall apart and become overgrown with soft grasses and wildflowers, and it seemed such a waste of sentience. I asked Mr. Feverlot what sort of work he had planned for me.
“Brokering,” he said, tugging on the brim of his fedora, his gaze cast downwards and away from me. “On the stock market. I believe you’ll be able to do it better than man, woman, or child in this country.”
“Ah yes,” I said. “I hear the market is very high.” My grasp on current events was tenuous at best, but the shop owner had not been hesitant to discuss financial matters in my presence, and I had heard some talk of the bull market between experiments and interrogation from the engineers back at the factory.
Mr. Feverlot laughed and applauded, as if I were a performer automaton in a circus or burlesque show.
“Oh, Harry, that’s really quite impressive,” said Miss Novacek, swooping up beside him. “I think we should take him home immediately.”
“I agree, darling, but, well—” And here Mr. Feverlot turned his attention back toward me and offered a wide, easy grin. “Ultimately, it’s Bosch’s decision, isn’t it?”
Looking back on my existence thus far, this was the moment when the world broke open for me, when mankind’s true and, forgive me, duplicitous nature first revealed itself, although I did not, of course, realize it at the time. Mr. Feverlot—who not long after asked me to call him Harry—was the first human to speak to me as an equal, and for this reason I trusted him. But with the benefit of hindsight, I now understand this question, so heartening at the time, was Harry’s first act of manipulation against me. I know many of your kind do not think it proper to speak ill of the dead, but you have asked for my honest account, and so my honest account I shall give you.
I agreed to accompany Harry and Miss Novacek back to his country home; not far, he said, from the factory. He drove himself—something I later learned made him a bit of a rebel amongst the members of his class. Although I had to collapse myself somewhat to fit in the back seat, I found the experience most enjoyable with the balmy air coming in through the infinitesimal gaps in my shell and then circulating through my electrical innards. Miss Novacek leaned over her own seat, twisting to face me, the wind blowing her wild hair back away from her face.
“Bosch baby,” she said, shouting a little over the rush of the wind. “I’m so glad you decided to come back with us. I have a friend, Fitz—I think you’ll adore him. He always says he respects automata as members of the new working class.”
Harry glanced at her somewhat askance, then returned his eyes to the road.
“He lives in Greenwich Village,” she shouted. “I’ll take you there sometime, what do you think?”
“Lily, I’ll not have you turning my new partner into some pinko sap,” he said. Miss Novacek slid back into her seat and turned her head toward him.
“Oh, play nice,” she said. She hadn’t covered her hair and it was becoming tangled by the wind. “Not that it matters. I’m sure he’ll make you heavy sugar even if he does.”
I didn’t know how to react to this exchange at the time. I felt I should side with Harry out of respect, although I found Lily’s—Miss Novacek’s—friendliness appealing. I suppose my affection for her sprouted during that ride out to Harry’s home, although it would deepen much later, after Mr. Feverlot and I were uncovered by the BOI and the trial was imminent.
Remember, I was young, by automata reasoning, and naive by any reasoning at all. The world was already in decline—my own new world, the financial world. Even if I, like the rest of you, didn’t know it yet.
The story of how I was hooked into the Exchange by way of a telegraph wire, as if I were a sentient ticker tape machine, was circulated widely during the lead-up to the trial, and I’ve no doubt a newspaper man such as yourself is thoroughly familiar with it. Indeed, if your coming to me was to determine if any part of that story was apocryphal, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. The newspapers reported with surprising accuracy in that regard—I did in fact gain access to the market by plunging myself straight into its bloodstream. “The dark magic of telegraph wires” is how the Times put it, I believe.
What none of the papers reported was why I continued with the scheme even after I learned that it was illegal for sentient automata to be involved with any jobs related to finance or numbers—one of the many laws put in place to protect human workers from my kind. And yes, I did understand what “illegal” meant, and no, I did not carry on because I wanted to see all humans crushed beneath my heavy metal foot—both popular rumors at the time. Quite frankly, Mr. Grish, I carried on with the scheme because I enjoyed it.
In order for you to understand why, you must understand an intrinsic quality about my kind. You see, some automata are hooked, as we say—connected to other automata or places of centralized information—but I was never one of them, having only served as a lowly shop worker. However, all automata, when first activated, are hooked to the central port of the factory of their origin. And we all remember, sentient or not, that flood of light pulsing through our circuitry, that sense of connection to others of our kind, that flush of information. I wanted that feeling again.
I always hooked the telegraph wire into myself—Harry insisted, which you may not realize is something of an oddity amongst humans. Automata are rarely granted control of their own activation. It is a taboo, I suppose, although one put in place not for morality but for control.
The first time I ever hooked myself into the Exchange was a few days after Harry and Miss Novacek collected me from the factory. Harry had installed a ticker-tape machine in his summer home. “We had to run a telegraph line out from the city,” he’d told me. “Very expensive, as you can imagine.” I couldn’t, but I nodded politely and watched the spool of paper unfurl from out of the machine and drop onto the floor.
“That,” said Harry, “is what I hope to have you replace.”
And then he explained his scheme to me, omitting certain details—such as its illegality, I didn’t learn of that matter until much later, after the first visit from the BOI—and giving the whole plan a bit of huckster’s gloss, like any good finance man. He told me that Wall Street had tried automizing the Exchange in the early part of the decade, but it had been a tremendous failure. An unsentient automaton, it seems, is no better than a ticker tape machine, and a ticker tape machine is considerably less expensive. But an automata with sentience? Mr. Feverlot planned to take me under his tutelage as he had many young stockbrokers in the city. He explained that he could impart not only knowledge, but also intuition: “I don’t believe that only humans are capable of such a thing,” he said. Flattery. And then, once I learned everything he knew, I would hook myself up to the telegraph wires, and the market reports would flood into my system and I would be able to sort and buy and sell faster than any man, woman, or child on the face of this earth.
“Hook yourself up,” he said. We were standing in his study, in front of his ticker-tape machine. He pressed one hand against my back, the warmth of his humanity leaving an imprint against my shell’s burnished metal. “You should be able to read the stock reports as they come in.” He turned his face toward me and his eyes gleamed, sparking with electricity. “Then I’ll teach you everything I know.”
I was dazzled. I’m not so proud that I won’t admit it. But I wasn’t dazzled by fortune, as so many seem to think: I was dazzled by the possibility of being treated like an equal. Like one of you.
And then Harry unhooked the ticker tape machine from the telegraph wire. That constant tick tick tick stopped. I pulled open the panel on my side that concealed my activation switches and connection ports. Harry handed me the telegraph wire.
It felt strange lifting the telegraph wire from Harry’s palm—as if I were committing some unnamed sin. But it also felt liberating.
I slid the wire into the connection port. Immediately I heard the click of connection—and the information poured into me, the abbreviated names of business, the staccato burst of stock prices. I didn’t know what any of it meant—not yet—and I had no way of controlling the rush of reports, so I began to speak, reciting the information as quickly as it came, my mind filling with the cadence of its patterns and its rhythms. I was flooded with light.
And then the rush stopped, the light ceased, and I returned to the physical world, the world of color and sound and sight rather than of numbers. Harry stood beside me—his mouth hanging slightly open, his hand clutching the telegraph wire.
“I have an extremely good feeling about this,” he said.
I’ll spare you the details of my rise to fortune, as the story was repeated in great detail in newspapers across the country during the trial. Needless to say, Harry’s scheme worked: he did indeed teach me everything he knows, including intuition. I learned to control the flood of market reports when I was hooked up to the telegraph wire; in time, I began to convert that information stream into a series of purchases and sales. I earned Harry a great deal of money over the next few years.
I imagine you may be more interested in my emotional state during that time period, if you are in fact a journalist worth your salt, as they say. In truth, I enjoyed the process of buying and selling the stock that transformed Harry into a millionaire. The stock market was an interest that I developed on my own, independent of any programming, which is something not generally allowed to my kind. I understand that humans tend to elicit a thrill from handling large sums of money. Myself, I only cared about money as an abstraction—I never cared about a fortune. For me, the joy was in the arithmetic.
In 1928, Harry moved me permanently to New York City. This occurred maybe seven or eight months before the public trial began; already his office out in the country had been shut down, and investigators from the BOI had come rummaging through his property. They threatened to seize me as evidence, despite my sentient status, and so Mr. Feverlot sent me to an apartment on the Lower East Side, one of the many apartments he kept for Miss Novacek’s personal use. I wasn’t bothered until the trial.
I continued to trade during that time period. I debated confessing this to you, but after the darkness of Black Tuesday, the nation has far more pressing matters than a six-year-old transgression that has been wiped clean by inevitability. So yes, I continued to trade while I was in New York—although by this point, I had far surpassed Mr. Feverlot’s ability, and I began to siphon off a stream of money for my own personal use. By which I mean, of course, more trades. As I said, my interest was in mathematics, not wealth.
During this time, before the trial started and Miss Novacek gave up on Harry completely, disappearing into the city’s dark underworld, she often came to visit me, usually during the afternoons, before she pursued various parties and dances that had little to do, I learned, with her relationship to Harry. I’d already found the bundle of photographs of herself hanging off the shoulders of slouching young men, many of which were dated from the previous year in her own looping handwriting. I doubted she had any real allegiance to Harry; I didn’t either, not at that point. I already suspected that, despite his apparent concern, Harry planned to throw me to the wolves the moment it was prudent for him to do so.
Miss Novacek and I sometimes went for walks in the nearby park. It was winter, and the snow would drift down from the slate sky and seem to hang suspended in the frozen air. “The only time this city is beautiful,” Miss Novacek liked to say, her fur-lined coat fluttering in the wind, her eyes shaded by the beaded cloche she always wore, even during the day, as the snow piled up on the dirty sidewalk and blanketed it with white. Other times, we sat in the sitting room of the apartment, listening to jazz on her radio—Miss Novacek liked Red Nichols, while I found I preferred King Oliver.
She even took me to the cinema once, and we sat in the very back row so that my height would not disturb the other patrons. We saw The Mysterious Lady. It didn’t much hold my interest, and so I watched Miss Novacek, sitting rapt in the silvery light, her lips mouthing all of Greta Garbo’s lines.
And even though weeks would stretch by wherein Miss Novacek did not come to see me, her personality shone through the apartment’s decor, which I did not change in the slightest. Lines of French poetry curled across the apartment’s walls. Mirrors reflected the bright overhead lights and the sharp Art Deco lines of the furniture. Everywhere I turned, I saw myself—shattered into pieces, shining beneath the lamps, wrapped in poetry I did not understand. Each Tuesday, a young man with a Czech accent brought a bouquet of roses, the colors changing from week to week.
I was happy during this period, despite the lingering specter of the trial. Harry was distancing himself from me, and so I was free to delve deeper into the market than I had before, tracing those patterns to their inevitable conclusion. I knew my happiness was ephemeral—all happiness is ephemeral, of course, otherwise we would not recognize it for what it is—but by that point, I already knew the market was going to crash. I heard whispers of it in the numbers whenever I hooked myself in; I felt the tremors of its plummet reverberate through the wires coiled up inside me. I told no one. I saw no point.
One humid spring day, not long before the trial began, Miss Novacek came to visit. I hadn’t seen her for nearly a month and a half, and I had convinced myself that our friendship was merely a winter occurrence.
“Bosch,” she said brightly when I entered the sitting room, having been in my study finalizing a financial matter. Miss Novacek had draped her lithe body across the chaise lounge. “I see Janek brought me orange this week.”
I glanced at the roses, displayed in their usual spot atop the fireplace mantle. Some part of me enjoyed having an organic object in the apartment, so I always cut the stems and placed the roses in a crystal vase.
“How are you, Miss Novacek?”
She sighed in a dramatic fashion and kicked out her bare legs.
“Bored,” she said. “Harry’s all tied up with his trial preparations. He doesn’t want me hanging around. Says I’ll make him look bad.” She pouted for a moment, then broke out into laughter. Then she sat up and draped her arm over the edge of the lounge. “I want to take you out,” she said. “Like I promised. Remember? When we first brought you home?”
I did remember. I remember everything—although “remember” is a human term, not an automaton’s.
“I don’t think I would be welcome.” Harry never took me to his various fundraisers and other gatherings, despite all the work I had done for him.
“Oh, Bosch baby,” she said. “There’s a whole big world out there for you.”
She leapt up and scurried into the bedroom, into the closet hanging with women’s clothing. I followed her and watched her slide out of her day clothes. Then she stood in her undergarments, one hand on her hips, the other rifling through the items in the closet. Eventually she pulled out a loose-cut dropped-waist dress, its cream-colored fringe shimmering in the electric lights. Rhinestones had been sewn into the fabric around the neckline, and whenever she moved, light bounced into her face, moving in dots across her dark eyes.
“I always got to make an entrance, baby,” she said, turning to the mirror to reapply her kohl. “I want the entire room to stop when I walk in. Otherwise, it’s like I don’t exist.”
When she said this last bit, she stared at the mirror, her eyes watching her mouth move. She dropped the kohl stick to the counter. There are many things about human beings I know I will never understand.
This was the first time Miss Novacek ever showed me the other part of her world. We walked the ten blocks to the speakeasy, Miss Novacek chattering easily along the way about people I’d never met—names she’d mentioned here and there whenever she was with Harry, hints to him that he was the not main feature in her life. She led me down a narrow, dark alleyway and then rapped on a dingy metal door. When it cracked open half an inch, she spoke the password--Evelyn, in case you wondered.
The door scraped open. The guard looked at me with suspicion, but Miss Novacek just pressed him aside and said, “Bosch’s on the up and up, and I don’t want to hear anything from you about it.”
We went in and immediately I was plunged into the sensory world. After all those months I’d spent brokering trades in the city, letting the cadence of numbers fill me up completely, I thought it was the only stimulation I needed. But here was humanity in this little back-room speakeasy, wreathed in smoke and jazz, broken twinkling laughter, and the sour sweet fermentation of alcohol. The experience of it froze me in place.
Miss Novacek breezed out into the dance floor and the whole room seemed to light up as a hundred faces acknowledged her presence. Someone called her name and she stood on her toes and waved, then led me across the room to a table crowded with the sort of young people you used to read about in the papers—flappers and flaming youth and the like. They all regarded me with curious eyes until Miss Novacek smiled and said, “Everybody, this is Bosch. Play nice.”
For a long while, no one spoke. Then one young man wearing a threadbare coat and a few days’ growth of beard nodded at me, and the group resumed their conversation as if I were not present. I sat down in a nearby chair and listened to their talk—the usual gossipy concerns of youth, who was chasing after whom, who had gotten some girl knocked up. When talk began to lapse into politics, Miss Novacek stood up and announced that she wanted to dance.
The young man with the beard glowered at her, although Miss Novacek redirected his anger elsewhere with a dazzling smile and a dip of her shoulder. I don’t dance, of course—I’m not built for it—but one of the fellows at the table stood up and escorted her out to the dance floor, and for a while I watched them do the Charleston, limbs flailing with a fevered urgency I have always associated with desperation.
The dance floor began to fill up, the talk at the table turned back to less weighty matters than the radicalism of Mr. Galleani, and I sat in my rickety, creaking chair and watched for rhythms in the weave and flow of the bodies in the speakeasy. I was accustomed to thinking of everything in terms of the ineffable patterns of the stock market, and I was struck by the vulnerability of human society as I sat in that illicit bar, watching strangers attempt to forge connections with one another.
Remember, I knew the crash was about to happen.
We stayed quite a while at the speakeasy, long past midnight. I learned that the bearded gentleman, with his high-minded political beliefs and anarchist leanings, was none other than Fitz, the friend Lily claimed so respected the automated working class. I didn’t feel that he respected me in the slightest—but then, I was sentient; I had been liberated from the binds of the proletariat.
By the time the bartender began shooing patrons away, only Miss Novacek and I were left of the original group. She charmed the bartender into one more drink, and she leaned up against me, her skin warm and damp from exertion. She claimed I helped her cool down.
We didn’t speak. She didn’t ask me what I thought of her friends, and I didn’t ask her why she thought I’d get along in a den of youthful bohemia. This moment was one of our last together before the trial began and the papers picked up the story. I’ll admit I possessed a fondness for her that I didn’t feel for any other human being—it was not a sexual attraction, as the papers claimed; it was not something animalistic and predatory. Rather, it was a sort of kinship. We had both been exploited by a very powerful man, after all, and we both used the experience to our own ends. I thought of her as my sister, even though she is made of blood and bone and not metal and wire.
I saw Lily recently. After the trial, she fell in more heavily with the communist groups—I suppose because they offered a level of protection from the furor surrounding Harry and myself. She found me much as you did—by following stories about an automaton who walks through Thompkin Square every Wednesday afternoon, feeding the birds. I don’t know how she knew it was me. Perhaps she felt that kinship as well.
As you know, the court ordered me to be dismantled, but the Crash threw everything into disarray, and after Harry committed suicide, I was forgotten and abandoned. At least until Lily intercepted me on my walk back in October, the leaves sounding like rain as they drifted to the browning grass. I almost didn’t recognize her at first. She looked faded, like a mimeographed version of herself. However, she still called me Bosch baby when she stepped into the path, and for a moment, in the amber dusk of autumn, I saw the light of her former self, radiating out from the center of her heart and into this fallen world.