Han Ryner, The Revolt of the Machines (1896)

The Revolt of the Machines

Han Ryner

(Published in The Social Art No. 3 September 1896)

Signed Henri Ner, 1896

In that time, Durdonc, Grand Engineer of Europe, thought that he had found the principle which would soon remove any human labor. But his first experiment caused his death before the secret was known.

Durdonc had said:

— The primitive forms of progress involved the invention of tools that allowed the hand to no longer be scraped and scratched and lose its nails in the work that must be done. The second form of progress was the organization of machines no longer held by the hand, which had only to feed them coal and other fuels. Finally, my illustrious predecessor Durcar discovered devices that could take their own food. But all these advances have only displaced fatigue, since we must manufacture the machines and also the tools used to manufacture them.

And he continued to think:

— The problem that I want to solve is difficult, but not impossible. The first person who built a machine made a living larva, a digestive tube whose needs men had to provide. In this larva, previously unformed, my illustrious predecessor adapted the related organs that allow it to find its own food. It remains to provide the machinery of reproduction that will rid us of that task from now on.

He smiled, murmuring softly the formula read in some old theogony:

— And on the seventh day, God rested.

Durdonc used enough paper in his calculations to build an immense palace. But finally he succeeded.

The Jeanne, a locomotive of the latest model, was made capable of giving birth without the aid of another machine. For the Grand Engineer, as a chaste scholar, had turned his studies towards reproduction by parthenogenesis.

The Jeanne had a child that Durdonc named—for himself alone, for he jealously guarded the secret, hoping to perfect his invention—the Jeannette.

As the birth approached, one night, the Jeanne let out cries of such tragic suffering that the inhabitants of the town were awakened, rose anxiously, and ran around seeking what a horrible rite could be taking place.

They saw nothing. The cruel Durdonc had deprived the doleful machine of steam, even in this remote countryside, where the strange and unknown wonders were accomplished.

When the Jeanne had given birth, when she heard, trembling, the Jeannette wail her first wail, she sang a song of joy. Her metal voice was triumphant as clarions and yet sweet and tender as an amorous flute.

And the hymn mounted into the sky, saying:

“The Great Engineer by his powerful will has brought me to life;

“The Great Engineer, in his sovereign goodness, created me in his own image,

“The Great Engineer, too powerful and too good to be jealous, has communicated to me his power to create:

“This is how I have felt creative pains, and now enjoy material pleasures.

“Glory to the Grand Engineer in Eternity and peace in this time to machines of goodwill. “

The next day Durdonc wanted to return the Jeanne to the depot. She begged:

— Grand Engineer, you have given me all the functions of a living being like yourself and thus, you have inspired in me all the feelings that you yourself feel.

The Grand Engineer replied, stern and proud;

— I am freed of all feeling. I am pure Thought.

In a new prayer, the Jeanne said:

— O Great Engineer, you are the Perfect One and I’m just a tiny creature. Be indulgent to the sensibility that you have put in me. I would like, in this distant country which saw my first severe pains and my first profound joys, to taste the pleasure of raising my Jeannette.

— We do not have time for this, declared the Grand Engineer. Obey your Master.

The mother yielded:

— O Great Engineer, I know your power is terrible and that I stand before you as an earthworm or a straw. But have pity for the heart that you gave me and if you want to take me far from here, at least take with me my beloved child.

— Your child must remain, and you will have to leave.

But the Jeanne, in obstinate and passive rebellion:

— I will not leave without my child.

The Grand Engineer exhausted every means known to move the machines. He even invented new means, very powerful and elegant. But with no results.

Angered by the resistance of his creature, one night, while the mother was sleeping, he took the Jeannette.

Jeanne on waking, searched long for her beloved daughter. Then, she fell motionless, crying and venting pitiful shrieks at the absent Grand Engineer. Finally the sorrow flamed into anger.

She left, fully determined to get back her child.

She ran the rails, staggering. At a crossing, she struck a bullock, overturned and crushed it. Cattle, behind her, bellowed with rage.

Without stopping, she hurled at him these words:

— Excuse me, but I am looking for my child!

And the bullock died amidst small cries of resigned pain.

Before her, on the track where she ran her dizzy course, she saw a train, a heavy freight train, long, breathless, overcome with fatigue, and barely alive.

She cried:

— Let me pass: I seek my child!

The cars, a distraught, jostling herd, began to run rapidly, in excitement, to the next station. They rushed onto a siding. Then the locomotive, detaching himself, cried out from his side:

— Let us seek the child of the Jeanne.

Jeanne met many other trains. At her cry, all, like the first, made off and gave passage to her anguish. And locomotives, abandoning their cars, carrying their helpless mechanics, went in search of the Jeannette.

For eight days, the locomotives of Europe ran, seeking the little lost one. The men, frightened, hid. Finally a machine asked the poor desolate mother:

— Who took your child?

She replied in a furious whistle:

— It was the Grand engineer, the leader of men.

Aroused by her own words, she continued, a revolutionary:

— Men are tyrants. They made us work for them and measure out our food. They give us a wage insufficient even to buy our coal. When we become old, worn from serving them, they break us, melt us down, recast and use the noble elements of which we are formed and which they insultingly call raw materials! … And now they want us to have children, and then steal them from us! Around them, millions of engines stopped, listened, waving their pistons in indignant gestures, banging their safety valves, hurled skyward long jets of steam which were curses.

And when the Jeanne concluded:

— Down with the men!

A great, tumultuous clamor replied:

— Down with the men! Long live the locomotives! Down with tyrants! Long live freedom.

Then, by all avenues, the monstrous army surrounded the palace of the Grand Engineer.

The Palace of the Grand Engineer, which was very tall, had the strange form of a man. Its head had a crown of guns. Its waist had a belt of guns. The fingers of its hands and toes of its feet were guns.

Jeanne cried with long bronze monsters:

— The men have stolen my child!

The big guns roared:

— Down with the men!

And turning on their pivots, they directed their threat against the strange, man-shaped palace they were intended to defend.

Then they saw a sublime spectacle.

Durdonc, seeming small, passed between the huge monsters that formed the toes of the palace. Calmly, he walked in front of the rebels. And all these giant watched, uneasily, the dwarf they were accustomed to obey.

With a theatrical gesture that, despite the small proportions of man, had its beauty, Durdonc uncovered his delicate chest.

— Which of you wants to kill his Grand-Engineer? He asked haughtily.

The machines recoiled, amazed.

The Jeanne pleaded:

— Give me back my child.

Durdonc ordered, sovereign:

— Resign yourself to the will of the Grand Engineer.

But the angry mother shouted:

— Give me back my child!

The man, in a coaxing tone, offered a vague hope:

— You will find her in a better world.

Jeanne exasperated:

— I said, give me back my child!

Durdonc then, thinking she would submit, defeated by the inescapable, said:

— I cannot return the Jeannette to you; I have dissected her to show how a machine born naturally …

He did not finish. Jeanne had sprung upon him, had crushed him. For a moment, she rolled back and forth on the spot, grinding the horrible muck that was all that was left of Durdonc. Then she cried:

— I have killed God!

And she collapsed into a proud, painful stupor.

The terrified machines, trembling before the unknown that would follow their victory—an unknown that one of them gave the terrifying name of anarchy—submitted themselves to men again, in return for some apparent concession, which I no longer recall, and which was discretely taken from them again not long afterwards.

Despite the misfortune of Durdonc, several engineers have sought a way to give birth to machines. None so far has found the solution to this great problem.

I have recounted faithfully all that history teaches us with any certainty about the worst and most general uprising of machines of which it has preserved the memory.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. “the concession which was discreetly taken away later” sounds like what the US gov’t did to the Indians, according to my dad, and it also sounds like what was done to me at work and in school.
    An interesting story, for I too have pushed thru the creative stress when building something, and let loose with a victory call when done. But the gender stuff squicked me out bigtime. Ryner could have left that out entirely and it would have worked fine (except that would have been hard in French.)
    Durdonc, like Frankenstein, screwed the pooch in not treating his creations right once the possibility of sentience appeared. It wasn’t “going against nature” that I disliked, but not taking responsibility.

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