He was sure it was to be his last trip. The philosopher René Descartes had been summoned by Queen Christina of Sweden, who wanted to know his views on love, hatred, and the passions of the soul... He was travelling, he told his companions, with his young daughter Francine; but the sailors had never seen her, and, thinking this strange, they decided to seek her out one day, in the midst of a terrible storm. Everything was out of place; they could find neither the philosopher nor the girl. Overcome with curiosity, they crept into Descartes's quarters. There was no one there, but on leaving the room, they stopped in front of a mysterious box. As soon as they had opened it, they jumped back in horror: inside the box was a doll-a living doll, they thought, which moved and behaved exactly like a human being. Descartes, it transpired, had constructed the android himself, out of pieces of metal and clockwork. It was indeed his progeny, but not the kind the sailors had imagined: Francine was a machine. When the ship's captain was shown the moving marvel, he was convinced, in his shock, that it was some instrument of dark magic, responsible for the weather that had hampered their journey. On the captain's orders, Descartes's "daughter" was thrown overboard.
It's hard to know if this story is true. Descartes did go to Sweden, and did, as he had feared, die there, six months later. He had, in fact, attempted to build some automata earlier in his life (one of his correspondents reported that Descartes had plans for "a dancing man, a flying pigeon, and a spaniel that chased a pheasant"), and he continued to be interested in mechanical toys. But the events on the ship read like a too-perfect fable-about science falling prey to the God-fearing crowd, about the threatening, uncanny power of machines, about the rational philosopher who has an almost superstitious relation to the product of his own mind: he names it, he calls it his daughter-and whether or not the story is made up of literal facts, it must, in a sense, be true to some metaphorical purpose: what is the use of telling it? (It has been told many times since Descartes's death).
Descartes did have a daughter, and her name was Francine, but by the time this story is said to have taken place, Francine had been dead for many years. She was born in 1635, to a servant named Hélène Jans, whom Descartes never married. She lived with her father, at least some of the time, in the Netherlands, and he was planning to take her with him to France, when she died of scarlet fever, at the age of five. He told a friend that her death was the greatest sorrow of his life.
Seen from this angle, the Descartes of the story comes across, not as the reasoning philosopher, but as a fallible human being, distraught, nine years later, by the death of his child. Unable to mourn her, he constructs a simulacrum of the girl, gives it the power of motion, names it after her. If death was, as the following century liked to call it, "suspended animation," then Descartes, in animating this doll, had defied mortality and resurrected his daughter. Perhaps he had even done something, symbolically, for his own lifespan. Some years earlier, when he had been focusing his work on medicine, Descartes had written that he thought he could live to be a hundred. Francine died shortly after that. The making of the doll might be seen as an attempt to counter the terrible dashing of his hopes of extended life; and it seems fitting then that the ageless clockwork figure should have been destroyed on the trip where he was eventually to meet his end. This would suggest that the sailors might have been right to fear the object, not in itself, but because of Descartes's strange attachment to it.