The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Moxon's Master" (1899)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Moxon’s Master” was written by Ambrose Bierce and first appeared in San Francisco Examiner (Apr. 16, 1899). Bierce (1842-1924) was one of the best American short story writers, critics, and satirists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But he has always had an uncertain spot in the literary canon, something which speaks volumes about academia’s critical judgment. “Moxon’s Master” is, like much of Bierce’s oeuvre, a tart story whose ambiguity lingers pleasantly.

One night the nameless narrator of “Moxon’s Master” meets with his friend Moxon. They have a lengthy discussion about whether machines are capable of thought. The narrator doubts the possibility, but Moxon disagrees with him and brings in plant behavior as an analogy. From Moxon’s workshop, to which the narrator has never been admitted, both Moxon and the narrator hear a “singular thumping sound.”1 Agitated by this, Moxon goes into the workshop. The narrator hears “confused sounds, as of a struggle or scuffle.”2 The floor shakes, and the narrator hears Moxon swear, “Damn you,” and then silence descends. Moxon emerges from the workshop with four parallel cuts on his left cheek. Moxon’s comment is, “I have a machine in there that lost its temper and cut up rough.”3 Moxon and the narrator continue their conversation, and before the narrator leaves he asks Moxon what he has in the workshop. Moxon responds, “Nobody; the incident that you have in mind was caused by my folly in leaving a machine in action with nothing to act upon.”4 The narrator leaves, but mulls over Moxon’s words and decides that he is at least partially right about machine consciousness. The narrator returns to Moxon’s house to tell him so, but he finds that Moxon has gone into the workshop. The narrator peers into the workshop through a crack in the door and sees Moxon playing chess with a stranger. The narrator can see Moxon’s face, although Moxon is so intent on the stranger’s face that he does not notice the narrator. All that the narrator can see of the stranger is his back, but that’s enough to make the narrator not want to see the stranger’s front. The stranger is not more than five feet high, but tremendously broad, with unruly black hair topped by a crimson fez. His right hand, which he moves the chess pieces with, is disproportionately long. The stranger moves his pieces deliberately, in an almost theatrical way, while Moxon’s movements seem “quick, nervous, and lacking in precision.”5 The narrator remembers Moxon having once said that he had invented an “automaton chess player,”but the narrator sees the stranger shrug its shoulders as if it were irritated, and then, when Moxon wins the game, the stranger undergoes a convulsion and then begins throttling Moxon. The narrator tries to intervene. He glimpses on the “painted face of [Moxon’s] assassin an expression of tranquil and profound thought, as in the solution of a problem in chess,”7 and then passes out. The narrator awakens in the hospital and speaks with Moxon’s assistant Haley about Moxon’s end. Moxon’s house burned down and Moxon was buried during the three days that the narrator was unconscious. It was Haley who rescued the narrator from Moxon’s house. The narrator asks Haley whether he rescued “the automaton chess player that murdered its inventor.”8 Haley is silent for a long while and then looks at the narrator and gravely says, “Do you know that?” The narrator says, “I do, I saw it done.” But, “that was many years ago. If asked today I should answer less confidently.”9 

As in “The Damned Thing” and “The Death of Halpin Frayser” Bierce creates an entertaining and intelligently-written short story which resolutely refuses to answer the reader’s questions about what happened during the story. On the surface “Moxon’s Master” is a story about a chess-playing android which takes losing badly. But the final line casts doubt on that interpretation. Is the narrator unreliable and possibly homicidal? Did the narrator get fooled by a murder plot? Was the chess player a golem rather than a robot? There is no definitive answer to these questions, only possibilities.

“Moxon’s Master” is not, as some would have it, the first story about a robot. The android Talus, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-1596), stood as a prime example for centuries after of the conscious automaton. Jane Loudon’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) has clockwork-powered automata judges and lawyers as well. As Minsoo Kang notes, there was a long tradition of automaton stories in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. However, “Moxon’s Master” is “a significant episode in the history of automaton literature as possibly the first time a machine intentionally murders a human being.”10 Generally speaking, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that writers began to “import agency into automata,”11 and even then it wasn’t, as Stableford, Langford, and Clute note, entirely serious. Robots were not common characters, whether protagonists, supporting, or antagonists, until the pulps, and there robots and automata were as often sympathetically- or ambiguously-portrayed as they were sinister. It took until after 1945 and the dropping of the atomic bombs for sinister robots to reappear in any numbers, and until the 1950s for sinister robots to become common.

Recommended Edition

Print: Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs (New York: Library of America, 2011).



1 Ambrose Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” in Can Such Things Be? (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1924), 92.

2 Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” 93.

3 Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” 93.

4 Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” 96.

5 Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” 101.

6 Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” 101.

7 Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” 104.

8 Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” 105.

9 Bierce, “Moxon’s Master,” 105.

10 Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in European Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 181.

11 Brian Stableford, David R. Langford, John Clute, “Robots,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Nov. 12, 2018,