Steven Millhauser

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The Wizard of West Orange

Millhauser, Steven

Last Updated: Feb-23-2008
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story


The haptograph - an experimental device that mimicks ordinary feelings on the skin and stimulates previously unknown tactile sensations - sits in a locked room in the basement of a renowned scientific institution. It is 1889, and the reasearch facility is headed by the Wizard. He is a brilliant inventor who is cognizant of the importance of patents and profits. Multiple projects are ongoing, and the Wizard supervises all of them. One of his aims is to mechanically replicate each of the human senses.

The Wizard has many assistants. Kistenmacher, an electrical experimenter, is one of the best. His pet project is the haptograph. The machine consists of a body suit (covered by a network of wires, brass caps, and miniature electromagnets), battery, and unit containing replaceable cylinders. Two test subjects are enlisted. The research librarian (who tells the story in the form of diary entries) is a willing volunteer. Earnshaw, a stockroom clerk, is an unwilling participant.

Inside the suit, the librarian is impressed by a variety of familiar feelings of touch. When strange sensations - a total body caress, regeneration, an out-of-body event, and a sense of being suspended in air - are provoked, a new world is revealed to him. He experiences bliss. With ten times more funding and three additional researchers assigned to the venture, the haptograph could be commercially available in three years.

Dreams are smashed when Earnshaw deliberately wrecks the apparatus. The Wizard terminates the project and reassigns Kistenmacher to a more menial task. The librarian ponders the Wizard's motives in halting the development of the haptograph. Perhaps the gadget is too dangerous and even heretical. Possibly the public is not ready for it. Maybe the Wizard figures he cannot turn a profit from it.

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