Friday, 31 May 2019

The Automaton Police Office

I found this today and thought it was too good not to share.

This illustration, captioned Automaton Police Office and the Real Offenders, appeared in Bentley's Miscellany in 1838, as part of a satire by Charles Dickens entitled 'Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything'. The Association, naturally, is full of fools and lunatics making stupid proposals, but this one really stands out.

The problem, one of the associates explains, is that young gentlemen are causing lots of problems and damage through reckless driving, drunken rampages, beating up policemen, and so on. His solution is to build a giant park, ten miles long by four miles wide, with a tall wall around it. Inside will be empty fields and streets, specially maintained for such gentlemen to ride around smashing things up without causing any problems to the rest of us. There would be wide pavements for them to drive their carriages down, and, for added authenticity, pedestrians were to be hired from the local workhouses, implicitly to give them something to crash into.

So far, so Swiftian - but then Dickens adds a distinctive machine-age twist. In order to give the gentlemen something to beat up, these streets would be roamed by robot policemen. Their job would be to ineffectually attempt to arrest the gentlemen, in order to give them a chance to 'display their prowess' by smashing them to pieces. Once they were sufficiently tired out, the police robots - however mangled - would escort them to a fake police station for a lie down, where they would be 'tried' in the morning by robotic magistrates who were pre-programmed to say things like 'I am sorry to see gentlemen in such a situation' and 'I fear that the policeman was intoxicated'. It would also 'be furnished with an inclined plane, for the convenience of any nobleman or gentleman who might wish to bring in his horse as a witness.'

(This is the scene pictured above: the gentlemen rowdies are on the right, accompanied by the horse that they have brought in as a witness for the defence. The robotic police whom they have smashed up stand in the middle, giving evidence to the robot magistrates on the left, and to a secretarial automaton with a clock for a head. More broken robots lie in the corner in the far left, while fresh police robots lie in alcoves in the wall at the back, labelled 'A Division', 'B Division', and 'C Division', ready for fresh deployment.)

This is all so gameable it barely needs alteration. High walls surrounding a crumbling Potemkin city, built as a playground for the idle rich of a fallen civilisation. Malfunctioning clockwork automata in ancient police uniforms try to arrest anyone disturbing the peace, persisting even after their bodies are smashed to pieces - but all that they do with the people they catch is drag them into sham courtrooms, where robot magistrates find them innocent regardless of the evidence against them. Maybe a cargo-cult society descended from local paupers, convinced that it is very very important for them to spend several hours a day wandering the empty streets in case somebody wants to drive a coach into them. Armies of robotic enforcers lying dormant and rusting in alcoves, waiting to be wound up and sent marching into action. And witness stands for horses.

You could even go for a Westworld style set-up where the whole thing was brought down by a malfunctioning automaton who developed enough intelligence to start resenting getting his head kicked off every night, only to see his tormentors pardoned every morning. Hell, maybe he's still out there, lurking in a corner of the park, his lair stacked high with all the jewelled canes, gold snuff boxes, diamond rings, and other treasures that he looted from the idle rich during his brief but effective reign of terror...


  1. Definitely gameable, that's a campaign setting right there.

  2. It's one of those ideas that can work in almost any genre, too. Traveller-style science fiction? It's a ready-made planet of funny hats! Horror? Automatons run amok! Steampunk? Barely functional clockwork mechanika.

  3. Yes, sir. I would play this. Remind me to 3d print some automata tomorrow if you would be so kind.

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    1. Enjoy it whole you can, bloodsucking scum. Your vile kind is not long for this world. Even now, the werewolves are sniffing out your last lairs.

  5. so dickens predicted GTA