The dark devices of Alton Wigett (person)
Alton Wigett was the son of celebrated English clockmaker Emmett Wigett. He was born in 1873 and an only child, raised by his father after the death of his mother when he was very young. Like his father, Wigett the younger was a cold man, taking no apparent interest in the world around him and focusing instead on a variety of mechanical marvels he tinkered with night and day. When his father passed away in 1892, Wigett inherited the family home and enough money to comfortably sustain himself for several years. It was after this windfall that Wigett began to develop his most well-known inventions.
Wigett's basic fascination was a chair with a single robotic arm and a single switch. The switch turned the mechanism on and from that point, powered by a crude electric motor, would activate a spring attached to the arm on a pseudo-random basis.
Wigett's machine was extremely comfortable, because it was intended for near constant use. A prototype he had toyed with in his youth had used discarded wooden kitchen chair, but upon the death of his father, he appropriated the late clockmaker's prized leather armchair and recycled it as the centerpiece of all his inventions. Though the armchair would clearly have been most appropriate for extended sitting, one likes to think this was a small homage to his departed father.
It is not widely known that Wigett was narcoleptic. When his father was alive, Wigett had relied upon him to wake him from his unexpected slumber. Alone, Wigett had no one to rely upon. The robotic arm device, which had previously been just a curiousity, now had a purpose in his solitary life. He fitted the arm with a small pincushion for padding and angled it so that, when he sat in it and flipped the main switch, it periodically poked him in the shoulder. The machine delivered a rousing poke, but the pillow prevented bruising.
Wigett attempted to interest medical professionals and nursing homes in his poking machine, but had no success. Most narcoleptics were attended by friends and family who willingly poked them back to wakefulness manually. The machine was of use only to Wigett.
Though his first invention was publicly unappreciated, it was a great boon to Wigett. He was now capable of working mostly normal hours and threw himself into his inventions with great fervor. But he was stuck on his robotic arm chair. He knew there must be a use for it, and the mechanism was already perfected. To the exclusion of all else, he worked on brainstorms to show the world the wonder of his technology.
Wigett subscribed to a popular theory of the time that a blow to the head would loosen inspiration buried deep in the subconscious. He must have made a comical sight, seated in his father's cyborg armchair, punching himself in the forehead and periodically whacked in the shoulder by the appartatus. But inspiration did strike (no pun intended), in a way that surely seems obvious to readers with the benefit of hindsight.
Modifying the poking chair into an automatic punching chair was a simple matter. At first, Wigett simply repositioned the arm, but found that the blow to the head, while it still woke him if he dozed off, was not sufficiently jarring. He increased the strength of the strike with a tighter spring, but needed only try that once to realize that the little pillow on the tip of the arm did not do enough to pad the blow. Finally, Wigett acquired a boxer's glove and fitted the arm with that. Additionally, he made a slight modification to the mechanism so that, when activated, it would always "come out swinging," and thereafter adopt its normal pattern of semi-random blows. In this way, it could be left on or only used as needed.
Though Wigett was thrilled by his accomplishment, marketing it was a dismal failure. He attempted to sell it to other inventors, as well as writers and other creative types. The editor of one inventor's journal Wigett attempted to interest in a short article on the thing said simply, "Mr. Wigett, I cannot conceive of any intelligent person who would pay good money for a machine meant to injure him."
At this time, Wigett was spending the last of his inheritance. He needed a succesful application for his machine, as he had no other skill. His father had attempted to teach him clockmaking, but Wigett had failed to pay attention and was capable of little more than oiling a timepiece's springs. Never a cheerful man, he approached collapse. Where before he might have ventured outside a few times per week for gears and groceries, he took to having neighboring schoolboys fetch and deliver his necessities.
Wigett's journals show an astonishing number of diagrams produced during this period that were given up on before even making it to the prototype stage: A spoon-feeding machine with an adjustable arm so that it could be used for babies or the elderly; an ear-boxing machine for busy disciplinarians with arms on each side timed to strike once, in concert; a posture-correcting device that would whack the user in the forehead, but could only reach them if they slouched. These examples are the most lucid. While all seem a little frivolous (to put it kindly), surely none is more ill-conceived than the automatic punching machine. But when Wigett emerged from his laboratory with another variation on the robotic arm chair, the result was his most outlandish invention yet.
The robotic arm had been adapted by Wigett so that, in addition to releasing the spring that held it back, it travled in a semi-circle across the user's body. Additionally, he had given it a second spring-controlled function, allowing the end of the arm to twist 45 degrees once the arm itself had stopped. It had no switch and was instead activated by a weight of over one hundred pounds in the chair. With these modifications, he had created a machine capable of stabbing the user in the chest and twisting the knife.
A dour and exhausted Wigett had difficulty explaining the applications of his new invention. Talk rose up immediately of the man having lost his mind, but at least there was talk. A journal, Modern Wonders, even ran a short blurb on the machine, though not a complimentary one. Wigett attempted to persuade people that it was to be used as a security device, that an undesired intruder might take a rest in your comfortable chair and, upon making this blunder, be dispatched (or, in the case of shorter criminals, seriously wounded). Despite the inventor's assurances, the public universally perceived it to be a suicide machine and generally found it hilarious.
Wigett retreated back to his workbench, depressed and desperate. His journal records his decision that the arm must be equipped with fingers and that the simple spring controlling its motion should be replaced with gears. He wrote of a dizzying number of applications such as automated haircuts, necktie-tying, and therapeutic massage. It is probable that Wigett did not realize how substantially these differed from the other uses he had attempted to put the chair to, or that these might be truly useful and well received.
As the story goes, Wigett worked on his robotic hand for months before finally getting the test case to work. He was able to bend the index finger (the only finger with working gears up to that point). Elated, he ran outside into the street, where a drunken crowd of his neighbors were making their stumbling way to their homes.
"I've done it! I've done it now!" he screeched at them.
The neighbors, aware of Wigett's notoriety as an inventor and of his stabbing chair, began to laugh at and tease the inventor. He quieted and his shoulders slumped. He stared with emptied eyes at the faces of the crowd who encircled him. He was pushed and put up no resistance, so that he volleyed back and forth between the walls of jeering faces. Tears ran down his face, but he made no sound and put up no hand to defend himself. Bored with his listlessness, the crowd left him to lay in the mud of the street.
Wigett returned home after some time and turned his machine to the most appropriate application for a hand inert except for the index finger. He fitted it with a pistol left to him by his father, sat down, and in doing so, shot himself.