Android’s Dream: Tik-Tok of Oz

Throughout the long history of fiction, androids and gynoids – artificial men and women – have been a common element. When included as tertiary characters they are often symbols for “the other.”

When treated as protagonists, they fill the tale with themes of the roles and definitions of humanity. Thus, this series is taking a close look at these artificial people. Today we’re looking at Tik-Toc.

Tic-Tok is the mechanical man featured in the Oz books by Frank Baum. Literary history calls him the first androidal robot to appear in print, long before a robot was even a thing.

Tik-Tok was not robotic, however. He functioned on clockwork, needing to have his springs wound on a regular basis. 

Tik-Tok was created by a pair of talented inventors: Smith, an expert artist, and Tinker, an expert machinist. They created many wonderful things in the background of the stories of Oz, but only two androids.

Tik-Toc was the most sophisticated, and is the only one actually featured in the Oz books (the other was a giant guard for the underground kingdom, who only knows how to stand in one place, and hit people with a giant iron hammer).

As Smith and Tinker later disappeared (both falling victim, ironically to their own supernaturally amazing talents), they never passed the knowledge to anyone else, and so Tik-Tok remained the only thinking android in the Land of Oz

Tik-Tok is actually three separate machines housed in a single chassis. The primary device is the mechanism that allows him to “work.” Winding that spring gives him his ability to walk, carry, and perform manual actions. Another device must be wound to allow him to speak, while a third gives power to his “thinking” which he uses to solve problems and have intelligible conversations. He cannot reach any of his winding keys on his own, relying always on other to keep him functioning.

Some of the more memorable moments come for Tik-Tok when we see what happens to him as these separate machines wound down at different rates. For example, if his thinking spring winds down first, he resorts to spouting gibberish, and walking in wobbly circles. Several times his work spring or his talking spring wind down at exactly the wrong moment, frustrating his companions.

He wears a card on his back, which he has never seen. It reads:

Smith & Tinker’s

Patent Double-Action, Extra-Responsive, Thought-Creating, Perfect-Talking Mechanical Man

Fitted with our Special Clock-Work Attachment

Thinks, Speaks, Acts, and Does Everything but Live

Manufactured only at our Works at Evna, Land of Ev

All infringements will be promptly Prosecuted according to Law

Tik-Tok’s first owner was the cruel king Evoldo of Ev, who became frustrated that Tik-Tok never groveled begged or even felt pain like his other slaves did. When Evoldo committed suicide years later, no one was left to wind Tik-Tok, and he spent many years locked up inside a cave, dormant.

It was Dorothy Gale who found his winding key, and revived him on her way to defeat the Nome King, a mission in which he became instrumental.

The mechanical man immediately took to Dorothy, and though he explained that he was not alive, and therefore could have no emotions, nor feel any pain, he also refers to himself several times as her ‘slave’. An idea Dorothy would have no truck with, insisting that he only follow her if he wished to.

It seems through the revelations of the story, however, that Tik-Tok has no true freewill, his thinking engine obliges him to whoever holds his winding key, and since he cannot ever wind himself, he can never truly be his own man.

Tik-Tok suffers another bout of dormancy when, long after his service to Dorothy is over, he accidentally angers the Nome King (his thinking springs were getting old, and making him say insensitive things), who has him torn apart, then reassembled with new springs, but then has him dropped down a well to rust.

He is later rescued by Betsy Bobbin (another Earth girl visiting Oz, like Dorothy), to whom he then becomes beholden, serving in a similar capacity as he did Dorothy, though not as closely featured.

The conflict for both Dorothy and Betsy was the idea of having another person beholden to them. Tik-Tok was to be used, like a tool, but he looked and talked like a person, which personified him in the eyes of the girls.

Baum was always careful however to write him up inhumanly. He truly had no desires for himself, or any personal goals. He served his current master as best he could with no more pride, shame, or joy than a hammer or a wagon.

Unlike most mechanical men in literature, he never once seemed to have the desire to be more than he was. Even his persistent cheery seeming attitude and his desire to serve was just an aspect of what we would today call his “programming.”

Tik-Tok also allowed Baum to discuss the topic of slavery in his books without ever having any of the protagonists hold real people as slaves. He can in some lights be seen as a symbol for the “born to serve” caste: people who can potentially have the same sort of unthinking servitude as Tik-Tok, simply because of the conditions under which they were born.

In this way, he is a clear symbol for ‘the other’. He is a type of person, and an attitude which is completely foreign to the young American girls who encounter him in their travels. The symbol is made stronger by making the lack of choice literal. While any human’s lack of choice regarding servitude is always social or mental – a situation that one could be rescued from, Tik-Tok’s fate is truly locked in by the most basic elements of his design.

Check back tomorrow, when our featured artificial person will be Marvin the Paranoid. If you have an idea for an android or gynoid we could feature, let us know in the comments.