Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Thinking Machine

I've been watching Prison Break on NetFlix Streaming and tonight it brought to mind one of the classic crime short stories about escaping from prison. "The Problem of Cell 13," by Jacques Futrelle, was first published in 1905 and re-published in any number of omnibus collections of detective/crime fiction since. The protagonist is Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen [who would have been a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown], known as the Thinking Machine. Here is the set-up for the story:
It was only occasionally that The Thinking Machine had visitors, and these were usually men who, themselves high in the sciences, dropped in to argue a point and perhaps convince themselves. Two of these men, Dr. Charles Ransome and Alfred Fielding, called one evening to discuss some theory which is not of consequence here.
"Such a thing is impossible," declared Dr. Ransome emphatically, in the course of the conversation.
"Nothing is impossible," declared The Thinking Machine with equal emphasis. He always spoke petulantly. "The mind is master of all things. When science fully recognizes that fact a great advance will have been made."
"How about the airship?" asked Dr. Ransome.
"That's not impossible at all," asserted The Thinking Machine. "It will be invented some time. I'd do it myself, but I'm busy."
Dr. Ransome laughed tolerantly."I've heard you say such things before," he said." But they mean nothing. Mind may be master of matter, but it hasn't yet found a way to apply itself. There are some things that can't be thought out of existence, or rather which would not yield to any amount of thinking."
"What, for instance?" demanded The Thinking Machine.
Dr. Ransome was thoughtful for a moment as he smoked.
"Well, say prison walls," he replied. "No man can think himself out of a cell. If he could, there would be no prisoners."
"A man can so apply his brain and ingenuity that he can leave a cell, which is the same thing," snapped The Thinking Machine.
Dr. Ransome was slightly amused.
"'Let's suppose a case," he said, after a moment. "Take a cell where prisoners under sentence of death are confined — men who are desperate and, maddened by fear, would take any chance to escape — suppose you were locked in such a cell. Could you escape?"
"Certainly," declared The Thinking Machine.
"Of course," said Mr. Fielding, who entered the conversation for the first time, "you might wreck the cell with an explosive — but inside, a prisoner, you couldn't have that."
"There would be nothing of that kind," said The Thinking Machine. "You might treat me precisely as you treated prisoners under sentence of death, and I would leave the cell."
"Not unless you entered it with tools prepared to get out," said Dr. Ransome.
The Thinking Machine was visibly annoyed and his blue eyes snapped.
"Lock me in any cell in any prison anywhere at any time, wearing only what is necessary, and I'll escape in a week," he declared, sharply.
Dr. Ransome sat up straight in the chair, interested. Mr. Fielding lighted a new cigar.
"You mean you could actually think yourself out?" asked Dr. Ransome.
"I would get out," was the response.
"Are you serious?"
"Certainly I am serious."
Dr. Ransome and Mr. Fielding were silent for a long time.
"Would you be willing to try it?" asked Mr. Fielding, finally.
"Certainly," said Professor Van Dusen, and there was a trace of irony in his voice. "I have done more asinine things than that to convince other men of less important truths."
The tone was offensive and there was an undercurrent strongly resembling anger on both sides. Of course it was an absurd thing, but Professor Van Dusen reiterated his willingness to undertake the escape and it was decided upon.
"To begin now," added Dr. Ransome.
"I'd prefer that it begin to-morrow," said The Thinking Machine, "because — "
"No, now," said Mr. Fielding, flatly. "You are arrested, figuratively, of course, without any warning locked in a cell with no chance to communicate with friends, and left there with identically the same care and attention that would be given to a man under sentence of death. Are you willing?"
"All right, now, then," said the Thinking Machine, and he arose.
"Say, the death-cell in Chisholm Prison."
"The death-cell in Chisholm Prison."
"And what will you wear?"
"As little as possible," said The Thinking Machine. "Shoes, stockings, trousers and a shirt."
"You will permit yourself to be searched, of course?"
'I am to be treated precisely as all prisoners are treated," said The Thinking Machine. "No more attention and no less." .... [the story]
The Problem of Cell 13