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This question Who said, "The only way to model an infinitely complex system is with the system, itself"? prodded my memory about the work of von Neumann, particularly his concept of self-reproducing machines, or "von Neumann automata". These were notably used in 2010: Odyssey Two, the sequel to 2001: A space Odyssey to change Jupiter into a star. Von Neumann published his idea in 1948. What was the earliest example of a science fiction story using this concept?

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There were a couple of 19th century stories that featured characters talking about the possibility of a machine dominated future and machine "reproduction", if you see these discussions as a sort of story-within-a-story they could possibly qualify. First is Samuel Butler's story Erewhon (1872), second is a short piece by George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) titled "Shadows of the Coming Race" (1878). I discussed these in a previous answer to a similar question here, with some quotes. In Butler's story, the character warning about the future danger of machine dominance seems to suggest the machines could be considered to have their own "reproductive system", but also suggests that human assistance might be part of the machine's reproductive system (comparing the humans to the bees that assist some plants in their reproduction), so it's ambiguous whether the story is just considering this possibility alongside the notion of fully self-reproducing machines, or as an alternative to it.

Butler's story is available online here, with chapter XXII talking about how the Erewhonians had banned most machines after the publication of a book warning of their dangers, and chapters XXIII-XXV containing excerpts from the imaginary book. Some of the material in these chapters is a reworked version of Butler's 1863 essay "Darwin among the machines" which @Buzz pointed out in the comments, that essay is available online here along with a subsequent essay on similar themes titled Lucubratio Ebria (1865); these essays probably can't be considered science fiction since there is no fictional framing, though the tone seems at least partially tongue-in-cheek, and since they were written under a pseudonym it's possible Butler was imagining them as being written by a fictional character.

In "Shadows of the Coming Race", available online here, a character speculates about how machines may "evolve" to reproduce and repair themselves independently of human aid, asking rhetorically "how do I know that they may not be ultimately made to carry, or may not in themselves evolve, conditions of self-supply, self-repair, and reproduction". Since this is just dialogue by a character this may not qualify as a science fiction story, but as I said the scenario sketched in dialogue could be seen as a kind of story-within-a-story.

The earliest more unambiguous story of self-reproducing machines I found was summarized in this article about robots in pre-golden-age sci fi, with a 1916 story where Gulliver travels to a planet of self-sufficient intelligent machines:

Frigyes Karinthy, Voyage to Faremido: Gulliver's Fifth Voyage (Utazás Faremidóba; Gulliver ötödik útja, 1916; in translation, 1965). It's 1914, and Jonathan Swift's Lemuel Gulliver is eager to go to sea again. He signs on as a surgeon on a British ship, only to be torpedoed in the Baltic, then picked up by a UFO and transported to Faremido, a planet ruled by intelligent machine-folk. They regard organic life as a loathsome disease of matter, so they're tickled about the Great War, which looks likely to exterminate humankind. Agreeing that the Faremidoans (whose society is peaceful, and whose fa-re-mi-do language is musical) are superior beings, Gulliver accepts an injection of their own brain-matter - quicksilver and minerals - into his head. Now a proto-cyborg himself, Gulliver is sent back to England, where he finds it difficult to adjust to the irrational horrors of everyday life. Fun fact: The sequel to this Hungarian novella is Capillária (1921), in which Gulliver gains insight into sexual politics when he visits a submarine civilization whose women dominate and eat their menfolk. Also see Karinthy's recently reissued autobiographical novel, A Journey Round My Skull.

The English translation is available on amazon here, the Hungarian version is online here. And there is a longer plot synopsis on p. 400 of Science-Fiction, The Early Years which mentions that "The machines manufacture new members of their society in factories".

Incidentally, there were also some nonfiction speculations about self-replicating machines prior to any of these examples. In 1833 the engineer John Adolphus Etzler published a plan for a utopian community called The Paradise within Reach of all Men, and on p. 98 talked about how his planned "machineries" would be so fully automated that they could "propagate or multiply themselves without labor". (For information about Etzler see the recent book The Great Delusion by Steven Stoll.) And in 1835 Andrew Ure published his book The Philosophy of Manufacturers, a book which despite its pro-capitalist stance was apparently an influence on Karl Marx, as discussed in this blog post; the post quotes Ure saying that "the most perfect manufacture is that which dispenses entirely with manual labor. The philosophy of manufacturers is therefore an exposition of the general principles, on which productive industry should be conducted by self-acting machines" (p. 1), along with the quote "on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere overlookers of machines" (p. 20).

Also, in addition to Butler's 1863 essay "Darwin Among the Machines" discussed above, another early non-fiction piece was "Ye Machine" by economist Alfred Marshall (1867) which speculated about the design of an intelligent learning machine (he imagined something similar to Hebbian learning in neural nets), but which went on to speculate on p. 119 about self-replication and evolution, with the comment that "the Machine, like Paley’s watch, might make others like itself. We thus get hereditary and accumulated instinct. For these descendants, as they may be called, may vary slightly, owing to accidental circumstances, from the parent. Those which were most suited to the environment would supply themselves most easily with fuel, etc. and have the greatest chance of prolonged activity. The principle of natural selection, which indeed involves only purely mechanical agencies, would thus be in full operation." I haven't been able to find a copy of this one online (it's discussed in the book Rise of the Self-Replicators linked below), but according to the "references" section of this PhD thesis it was reprinted in Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology: Archival Supplement 4, p. 116-132.

For other early examples from both fiction and nonfiction, there's a nice book on the subject called Rise of the Self-Replicators: Early Visions of Machines, AI and Robots That Can Reproduce and Evolve. The website for the book here offers a free PDF version.

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    Butler actually first mentioned the idea of reproducing machines about a decade earlier, in "Darwin Among the Machines" (1863) web.archive.org/web/20060524131242/http://www.nzetc.org/tm/…
    – Buzz
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 21:11
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    Is the “Butlerian Jihad” in The Dune universe named after this Butler?
    – Todd D
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 15:22
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    @ToddD - That's a common speculation, but I don't think Frank Herbert ever directly addressed the origin of the name "Butlerian" in the context of Dune.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 22:08
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    I agree that, as far as I know, the answer to the specific question posed ("What was the earliest example of a science fiction story using this concept?") is Samuel Butler in his 1872 novel Erewhon, which was a development of his earlier newspaper article Darwin Among the Machines published in 1863. I wrote the book Rise of the Self-Replicators that @Hypnosifl kindly mentioned in his excellent answer. I am currently working on an afterword to the book (to be published as a journal article) where I discuss various early writing about self-reproducing machines that I have come across since
    – Tim T
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 16:53
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    (cont. from above) - writing the book. This includes the work of Etzler, Karinthy and some of the pulp stories mentioned in the previous answers and comments. I'm going to acknowledge this thread in the paper for bringing these works to my attention - if Hypnosifl and M.A.Golding would like to be acknowledged by name please feel free to send me a message with your details (you can find various ways to contact me on my website). I will post a link to a preprint of the afterword here when it is available, in case it is of interest.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 7:47
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In "Mechanista", by Eric Frank Russell, an Earth Spaceship visits a planet ruled by a machine civilization, which of course requires that the machines build other machines as replacements for worn out machines.

"Mechanista" was published in Astounding Science Fiction, January, 1942.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?46521

The Famous early science fiction anthology Great Science Fiction Stories: Adventures in Time and Space, Raymond J. Healey and J. Francis McComas, 1946, 1957 has at least one story with self replicating machines.

"Mechanical Mice", by Eric Frank Russell and Maurice G. Hugi, Astounding Science Fiction, January, 1941. The story must have been written in 1940 at the latest, so years before the original question says that von Neumann publicized the idea of self replicating automatia.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?71451

Thus the idea of self replicating automatia was around in science fiction a few years before von Neumann introduced it in science.

In "Robots Return", by Roger Moore Williams, a crew of robots search the galaxy looking for their "ancestors". As Nine says:

Our records are complete for eight thousand years, but they do not go back beyond the time when the Original Five awaked, finding themselves lying on the edge of the sea, with no knowledge of how they came to be there. Perhaps they were a special creation, for they possessed great intelligence, speeedily adapting the planet to their needs, forging and constructing others to help them. Perhaps they had come there, in a ship that had sunk in the sea, from some other planet. But we have never been able to solve the problem.

Obviously the Original Five could figure out how to create other robots, and did, eventually creating an entire robot civilization.

"Robots Return" was first published in Astrounding Science Fiction, September, 1938.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?555541

The title character in "He Who Shrank" by Henry Hasse shrinks into many tiny universes and has many adventures. In one he has an adventure on a planet being abandoned by the bird people who live there, who retreat to their moon and build a metal shell around that moon. He discovers that the planet is being taken over by machines who build more and more machines under the direction of their controlling brain, and who are building space ships to spread to other planets. So Henry Hasse and his readers seemed familiar with the idea of intelligent machines building other machines.

"He Who Shrank" was published in Amazing Stories, August, 1936.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?41331

Hypnosifl says in a comment that John W. Campbell's "The Last Evolution", Amazing Stories, August, 1932, feaures self replicating machines.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?60642

From The Exile of Time by Ray Cummings:

There was, in 2930, a vast world of machinery. The god of the machine had developed them to almost human intricacy. Almost all the work of the world, particularly in America, and most particularly in the mechanical center of New York City, was done by machinery. And the machinery itself was guided, handled, operated—even, in some instances, constructed—by other, more intricate machines. They were fashioned in pseudo-human form—thinking, logically acting, independently acting mechanisms: the Robots. All but human, they were—a new race. Inferior to humans, yet similar. And in 2930 the machines, slaves of idle human masters, had been developed too highly! They were upon the verge of a revolt!

All this Tina briefly sketched now to Larry. And to Larry it seemed a very distant, very academic danger. Yet so soon all of us were plunged into the midst of it!

From Astrounding Stories, April to July, 1931.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?6744

http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=2556

So science fiction genre readers and writers were already aware of the concept of self replicating machines as early as the 1930s, and possibly even in the 1920s.

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  • In the pulp era, some other prominent early examples are John W. Campbell's "The Last Evolution" (1932) and Edmond Hamilton's "The Metal Giants" (1926) which is summarized here, the summary discusses a "robot brain" which builds machines that "gather and smelt metal" and then build further machines. Sounds like it was basically "The War of the Worlds" with machines rather than aliens.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 18:36

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