The Wizard of West Orange

Millhauser, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Feb-25-2008
  • Last revised: Feb-23-2008


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.


Skin is the largest organ of the body. Does it follow that touch is the grandest of all the senses? Feeling has a history. The story claims that touch not only has a memory but limitless, untapped potential. The process of research is adeptly explored: creativity, human energy, hierarchy, competition, secrecy, funding, success, and failure. The attitude regarding human experimentation is noteworthy. The connections between discovery and danger, science and obsession are underscored. Dreams and inventions go hand in hand. Thomas Edison is the template for the Wizard character in the story. Dubbed "The Wizard of Menlo Park," Edison created one of the world's biggest laboratories in West Orange< New Jersey in 1887.

Primary Source

Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories (pages 209-244)


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



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