James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the notion of the ‘influencing machine’ has entered the mainstream of our culture by stealth, from a thousand different sources. Covertly operated devices that use futuristic technology to send messages and control minds have become a staple of mass-entertainment science fiction and conspiracy narratives from the X-Files to The Matrix to The Manchurian Candidate. The Internet hums with rumours and first-person testimonies of mind control, electronic implants and subliminal influencing devices. The character who wears a tinfoil hat to deflect malign invisible rays has become a crude and parodic cliché of paranoia, and thus of madness itself. At the centre of this expanding web of fiction, technology, conspiracy and delusion, the influencing machine controls a new and disputed territory, accessible to all and none.

All this represents a striking transition from a century ago, when the influencing machine was just beginning to be glimpsed within psychiatric practice as a strange denizen from the far shores of insanity, recorded among the hallucinations of celebrated subjects such as Daniel Paul Schreber and August Strindberg, and yet to attract the attention of its first clinical interpreter, the gifted and tragic Victor Tausk. It is a challenge to the imagination, then, to comprehend just how uncanny it must have seemed a century earlier still when, in 1810, the prototype for all these spectral-cum-mechanical devices, James Tilly Matthews’ Air Loom, was first presented to the public.

air-loom-drawing_jtm_medNor was the Air Loom a distant ancestor, a rough sketch or fleeting glimpse that would need to be filled in with hindsight by succeeding generations. The influencing machine emerged fully formed. Where we might have expected to see confused jottings and frenzied scribbles, we have instead a precise and finely rendered technical drawing such as we might expect to find in a scientific journal of the time. Barrels, tubes, levers and cylinders are elegantly rendered and delicately shaded; figures are carefully dressed and artfully posed; components are finished with understated brass fittings and neatly keyed with copperplate lower-case initials. There is a coolness and conviction about the whole image, a sense that the artist has worked carefully to render complexity in its simplest form. Such coolness has a curiously unnerving effect. We wonder if we might have have been convinced of the reality of the machine, had it not been presented as the production of a long-term incurable inmate of Bethlem Hospital in London, the world’s most famous asylum for lunatics.

But the reader of 1810 was not expected to admire the artistry of the Air Loom, or to contemplate the subtleties of the imaginative world that lay behind it. John Haslam, the resident apothecary at Bethlem – known popularly for centuries as Bedlam – included the image in his book Illustrations of Madness, at that time the longest psychiatric report ever written on a mad patient’s delusions, with two clear purposes in mind. One was professional: as the title of his book indicates, he wished to illustrate madness in its most florid form, and by the same token illustrate that he himself was the model for a new and specialist category of ‘mad-doctor’. The other was personal: he was determined to prove, against contrary opinion from his family and others, that the artist, James Tilly Matthews, was indeed mad, and that those who had argued otherwise had proved themselves unfit to make such judgements.

The text that accompanied the illustration painstakingly reconstructed the world of the Air Loom, as conveyed to Haslam by his patient over many years. Matthews was convinced that outside the grounds of Bedlam, in a basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting his mind with magnetic fluids and rays.

The machine they had developed for this purpose, the Air Loom, combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, brass retorts and magnetic fluid, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged airs and gases, rather as the stops of an organ modulate its tones. It ran on a mixture of foul substances including ‘spermatic-animal-seminal rays’, ‘effluvia of dogs’ and ‘putrid human breath’, and the discharges of fluid extracted from these substances were focused to deliver thoughts, feelings and sensations directly into Matthews’ brain. There were many of these modulations, or ‘event-workings’, all vividly christened: ‘fluid locking’, ‘stone making’, ‘thigh talking’, ‘lobster-cracking’, ‘bomb-bursting’, and the dreaded ‘brain-saying’, whereby thoughts were forced into his brain against his will. To facilitate this process, the gang had implanted a magnet inside Matthews’ head. As a result of the Air Loom, he was tormented constantly by delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head. His confinement in Bedlam represented the success of their strategy in making him appear mad.

The Air Loom was being operated by a gang of undercover Jacobin revolutionaries, who had forced Britain into a disastrous war with Revolutionary France and were bent on maintaining hostilities between the two nations. These characters, too, Matthews could describe with eerie precision. They were led by their sadistic puppet-master and strategist, codenamed ‘Bill the King’; all details were recorded by his sarcastic and punctilious second-in-command, ‘Jack the Schoolmaster’. The French liaison was accomplished by a woman called Charlotte, who seemed to Matthews to be as much a prisoner as himself, and was often chained up near-naked. ‘Sir Archy’ was a woman who dressed as a rough, uncouth man and spoke in obscenities; the machine itself was operated by the sinister, pockmarked and nameless ‘Glove Woman’. When Matthews slept, this gang materialised in his dreams, ‘forcing their phantoms and grotesque images on his languid intellect’ and gathering the secret information they needed to plot his assailment for the following day.

But the gang’s activity was not directed solely at Matthews; rather, he was the only witness to a conspiracy that had already engulfed Europe. There were many Air Loom gangs all over London, influencing the minds of politicians and public figures, and with a particularly firm grasp of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, whom they could puppet like a child’s toy whenever he addressed Parliament. In Paris, too, the French Directory was being manipulated by Air Looms, as were the crowned heads of Prussia and beyond. By poisoning the minds of politicians on both sides of the Channel with suspicious and belligerent ‘brain-sayings’, the gangs were threatening national and international catastrophe. They were everywhere, lurking in streets, theatres and coffee-houses, where they tricked the unsuspecting into inhaling the magnetic fluid that would place them under the control of the Air Loom, and they carried magnetic batons that they could grasp to make themselves invisible if they were discovered.

John Haslam offered ‘the peculiar opinions of Mr. Matthews’ not merely to titillate the reader with extravagant lunacy – though he clearly had the sensation-seeker in his sights – but, more urgently, to announce his theory of madness to his professional colleagues. ‘Madness being the opposite to reason and good sense’, he patiently explained, ‘as light is to darkness, straight to crooked &c., it appears wonderful that two opposite opinions could be entertained on the subject’. Let no doctor take refuge behind the idea that madness is in some sense in the eye of the beholder, an abstract or relative concept on which experts might agree to differ. ‘A person’, Haslam insists, ‘cannot correctly be said to be in his senses and out of his senses at the same time’. The only sure diagnosis of madness was by careful examination of the facts of the case, and this was the spirit in which the Air Loom was offered to the reader.

But the irony of Illustrations of Madness is that it is now virtually impossible to read it in the way the author intended. Too much of the revolutionary zeitgeist of the 1800s screams out at us from the page; too much of the subsequent progress of psychiatry sends beams backwards in time to illuminate this detail or that, and receives answering winks in reply. Most of all, the facts of James Tilly Matthews’ life before his admission to Bedlam make it clear that we are in a looking-glass version of a true story – a version not simply deranged but somehow artful, pointed, ironic, even playful. All this would be lost had Haslam not recorded it, but we must somehow bypass the author’s intention to unlock its true meaning. It is a book that cannot simply be read: it demands to be hijacked.

The phrase that floats, like one of the Air Loom’s brain-sayings, over Matthews’ delusional world is ‘double agent’. This is what the Air Loom made Matthews: a man operated at certain times by his own agency, at others by the gang who controlled the magnetic device. Modern psychiatric understanding of influencing machine delusions places them among the manifestions of ‘passivity phenomena’: the sense, associated with schizotypal disorders, that the subject is observing himself at one step removed, his own actions seemingly driven by forces over which he has no control. But Matthews was a literal double agent, too: a man whose confinement in Bedlam had been the last act in a drama of diplomacy and espionage that had already seen him incarcerated for several years in France as a counter-revolutionary spy.

James Tilly Matthews was a tea-broker, originally from Wales, who found himself, in London in the late 1780s and early 1790s, swept up in the movement for progressive political reform. He had accompanied his republican mentor David Williams on a visit to visit Paris in the winter of 1792. Williams, along with a handful of British republicans that included Tom Paine and Joseph Priestley, had been proclaimed a citizen of the new French republic, and had been invited by the revolutionary government to assist them in drafting a constitution. But the timing of their arrival was fraught: the trial of Louis XVI had begun, and France and Britain were edging towards war. Matthews, driven by a combination of ideological passion and political naivety, became a self-appointed peacemaker, undertaking secret diplomatic missions across the Channel to persuade both governments to abandon their sabre-rattling and forge an alliance.

Matthews may have been a novice at such cloak-and-dagger affairs, but he was persistent and ingenious. He drafted peace proposals and new constitutional arrangements, and presented them to the British Prime Minister William Pitt and the French Foreign Minister Jacques-Pierre Brissot. Even when the rush to war swept his initiatives aside, he refused to abandon his mission. He persisted with his peace proposals until he was arrested in Paris by the Committee of Public Safety in late 1793; he spent the next three years, throughout the height of the Terror, under house arrest and in prisons. Returning to Britain in 1796, he began a letter-writing campaign against the British government, attempting to hold them to account for abandoning him to the enemy and accusing them of increasingly far-fetched conspiracies. Receiving no reply, in December 1796 he interrupted a debate in the House of Commons to accuse the government minister Lord Liverpool of treason, as a result of which he was arrested and confined in Bedlam.

Here, perhaps, through the succession of traumas, arrests and confinements that came to swallow up Matthews’ life, we can glimpse how the Air Loom might have made its entrance. The struggle between Matthews and the gang seems to have its origins in a struggle inside his own head. In his quest for peace on the brink of war, he found himself playing the role of British patriot and spy to Pitt and his government, and that of international republican – even, in his words, “true sansculotte” – to the French. As the two national agendas diverged into open hostility, so was the peacemaker torn in half. But the Air Loom offered an escape hatch for the double agent: a genuine double agency. Whichever persona he adopted, the troubling doppelganger who seemed to be fighting for the other side might be a puppet whose words and actions had been scripted and performed by covert magnetic workers. The Air Loom, whatever else it might have been, was perhaps a deus ex machina, a solution to the insoluble problem of the war that had consumed the world.

Indeed it seems from Haslam’s account that, although Matthews located the Air Loom and its gang abroad in the wider world, their central locus was inside his head. It was here that they manipulated ‘puppets of uncouth shape, and of various descriptions’ into obscene travesties of the waking world, simulating scenes and studying Matthews’ reactions to them, enabling them to ‘glean his waking opinions on the mysteries which, during the night, have danced in his imagination’. The gang, at their root here, were hobgoblins of the mind, night terrors, harbingers of the unconscious depths: they were frequently obscene, and Matthews believed they ‘lie together in promiscuous intercourse and filthy community’ while their puppet-shows played on the screen of his unconscious mind. Those who have had similar experiences in the modern era have frequently described them by analogy with a private and internal cinema: movies flickering on the blank screen of their minds. In lucid states, they express amazement at the skill of the ‘director’, some part of their brain with which they have no conscious engagement that somehow sifts the lost archives and stitches what it finds into compelling narratives. The language of psychiatry echoes the same metaphor, describing the process as ‘projection’.

Yet if the gang were ultimately malign munchkins in Matthews’ head, they also reflected his real waking life and its adversities. They were, perhaps, all his tormentors conflated: the procession of secret police, political apparatchiks, magistrates, doctors, jailers, keepers and other functionaries of authority who kept him confined for what had by now become the majority of his adult life. The pretext for his confinement had shifted from political crimes to diagnoses of insanity, but the texture had remained constant: the gang became, for him, the über-tormentors, the puppet-masters behind the scenes of which the men in revolutionary uniforms or Bedlam’s blue coats were merely the projected forms.

By the same token, the Air Loom itself reflects shards of the wider world, and Matthews’ story offers hints about why the first influencing machine might have taken the shape that it did. The two technologies that combined to operate it, pneumatic chemistry and mesmerism, both carried a heavy freight of cultural and political meanings as symbols of the culture wars in which Matthews was deeply immersed.

Pneumatic chemistry – the chemistry of gases – was a new and potent field of science that was, in Britain, associated most prominently with one man: Joseph Priestley. Though remembered for his role in the discovery of soda water and oxygen, Priestley was a part time chemist better known in his day as a dissenting minister and political reformer. He saw no conflict between science and religion: both pointed in the same direction, towards political revolution. Nature was God’s scripture; now that science was able to separate its elements and reconfigure them in new and powerful ways, the same process would revolutionise society. ‘The English hierarchy’, he wrote in tones that would have resonated with Matthews, ‘has reason to tremble even at an air pump or an electrical machine’.

As France and Britain headed towards war and the British establishment and public opinion lurched to the right, patriotic rhetoric flared into loyalist violence, and Priestley was an obvious target. On Bastille Day of 1791 he was forced to flee his laboratory as mobs under banners ‘For Church and King’ set about destroying it, forcing him into exile in America. Across the Channel the other genius of pneumatic chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, had suffered worse: he had been arrested in Paris in 1793, almost simultaneously with Matthews, and had been guillotined the same day.

Pneumatic chemistry embodied Matthews’ hopes for the future, and the downfall of its heroes was linked with his own betrayal and persecution. Its appearance as the motive force of the Air Loom speaks of the war-torn world outside his Bedlam cell: one where the dream of its enlightened pioneers had been subverted by sinister forces bent on applying it not to progress but to destruction; where the pneumatic scientists’ life-giving oxygen had been substituted with the foulest and most putrid substances imaginable; where the promised revolution had become a sightless, violent beast that had, in the famous phrase of the time, devoured its own children.

Matthews’ personal connection to the other radical technology on which the Air Loom drew, animal magnetism or mesmerism, was closer still. This was the force that allowed the machine to torment and control the minds and bodies of its victims, and it had also had a turbulent journey through France’s revolutionary adventure, with a trajectory that closely paralleled Matthews’ own: from loyal ally to sacrificial victim.

Brought to Paris by Franz Anton Mesmer in 1778, its spectacles and miracle cures had rapidly made ‘magnetism’ a popular sensation. But when Mesmer’s theories of magnetic fluids were rejected by the Academy in 1785 it had, like pneumatic chemistry, become a fellow-traveller with the revolutionary movement. Mesmer’s protégé Nicholas Bergasse, an ardent revolutionist, had conflated his master’s work with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion that primitive societies had been harmonious and self-regulating until modern institutions had disturbed their natural balance; thus, he maintained, despotic systems that ruled from above by the constant pressure of brute force always prevented a society from finding its true fluidic form. Only once such shackles were removed could society become whole once more, its equal but different components freed to maintain its natural, homeostatic harmony.

This theme was echoed by many of the early revolutionists, including Jean-Paul Marat, a bitter enemy of the Academy that had rejected his own scientific theories, and Matthews’ future associate Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who was explicit about the rhetorical possibilities offered by the public fascination with magnetic fluids. ‘The time has now come for the revolution that France needs’, Brissot argued, ‘but to attempt to produce one openly is to doom it to failure. To succeed it is necessary to wrap oneself in mystery; it is necessary to unite men under the pretext of experiments in physics but, in reality, for the overthrow of despotism’. Mesmerism became a metaphor for invisible forces flowing through French society that, if expertly channeled, could throw her body politic into convulsions from which she would emerge cured.

Come the revolution, however, mesmerism had switched sides once more. While some radicals had espoused it many others had not, and the new revolutionary orthodoxy swiftly coalesced into the view that, from its beginnings, it had been an aristocratic fad; as the Terror escalated, its practice had become punishable by death. Yet mesmerism remained a strange power, trailing behind it a mysterious science, transmitted covertly among an invisible underground. Although many leading mesmerists had become emigrés, there were skilled practitioners still in circulation who could demonstrate its powers under the cloak of occult drama that had so intoxicated the younger Brissot.

It was in this context that Matthews first encountered it personally, in circumstances transcribed by Haslam in Ilustrations of Madness. In Pleissis prison outside Paris in 1795, a fellow inmate named Chavanay had asked him, ‘Mr. Matthews, are you acquainted with the art of talking with your brains?’. When Matthews replied that he was not, Chavanay expanded mysteriously: ‘It is effected by means of the magnet’. Matthews is silent as to whether Chavanay proceeded to mesmerise him, but it may be that the Air Loom was seeded by such an experience. For someone grappling with the confusing, overlaid identities within which Matthews was becoming lost, to find thoughts and feelings conjured up in his head by another, with no apparent input from his conscious mind, might have explained much. If it was possible for some people to control the minds of others, might that not account for the succession of disasters that had overtaken the world? Nobody had wanted war, and yet Europe was consumed by a war that seemed to have no end. The Revolution, so carefully conceived and courageously fought for, had been hijacked by a power that all seemed to fear but none could explain. Could the truth be that those apparently in power were, in fact, no longer the masters of their own will?

One of the most striking effects of being mesmerised is that the face that stares back at you from the mirror is no longer easily recognisable as your own. If Matthews was already becoming someone who could no longer easily recognise himself in the mirror, the experience might have given powerful external validation to this insight that the world had somehow become a strange shadowplay, its true face concealed from all but a few. By the time of his confinement in Bedlam, Matthews would have come to believe that his encounter with the mesmeric Chavanay was the point where he first became ensnared in the net of covert operators and magnetic spies who had become the puppetmasters of the world stage.

So we can locate the sources of the Air Loom both inside Matthews’ head and in the convulsive events that had engulfed him, but there is a third and final place to look: within the walls of Bedlam itself. For here, too, there is a complex interplay between the delusional and the real, and one that suggests that the machine that was tormenting Matthews and the institution in which he was being confined were, when viewed from certain angles, one and the same. Before his confinement, his surviving writings are rich in bizarre plots and conspiracies, but the overarching frame of the Air Loom was yet to emerge: it was Bedlam that gave it shape. The London cellar from which he claimed that the gang operated was next to Bedlam; another gang, he added, plied their trade next to its rival asylum, St.Luke’s. The Air Loom’s subterranean, dungeon-like surroundings mirror Bedlam’s damp and rotting basement, and the power-relations between the gang and their victim suggest a topsy-turvy version of the hospital and its staff: one where, as the gang frequently gloat in Matthews’ dreams, Bedlam’s true purpose is not to treat or cure him but to perpetuate his madness.

Among the looking-glass reflections that play between the Air Loom and Bedlam is the symmetry between mesmerism and psychiatry itself. Is the psychiatrist, in fact, so different from the magnetist? Both claim mysterious influence over their subjects on the basis of disputed scientific underpinnings; both generate stories of miracle cures and abuse of authority in roughly equal measure. This was a symmetry that had been observed since mesmerism first emerged, and one that had come to public attention during the madness of George III. In his famous treatment (and apparent cure) of the King, the Rev. Dr. Willis had made much of his use of ‘the eye’ in controlling the mad, claiming that there was not a lunatic alive whom he could not stare into submission by the peculiar force of his gaze. During a House of Commons committee hearing into his treatment of the King, the politician Edmund Burke had queried Willis’ wisdom in allowing his Majesty to shave with a straight razor. What if ‘the Royal patient had become outrageous’?

‘Place the candles between us, Mr Burke’, Willis replied ominously, ‘and I’ll give you an answer. There, sir by the EYE! I should have looked at him thus, sir – thus!’

Burke cowered before the doctor’s ‘basiliskian authority’, unable to hold his gaze, and the cross-examination was over. Here, mad-doctoring and mesmerism are virtually the same art: doctor and patient are barely distinguishable from the gang and their victim, the former exercising irresistable powers of coercion over the latter. Haslam himself was sceptical of ‘the eye’, but not of the need for patients to abandon their own will entirely to that of the doctor. The Air Loom’s irresistable power, the senior functionary taking notes while his minions scurry around in the gloom, poking and prodding at their subject while cracking obscene jokes with one another, surely bear the imprint of Matthews’ years under Haslam’s care.

And if we were to follow this idea to its limits, might we not conclude that the Air Loom was ultimately not just Matthews’ creation, but Haslam’s too? Haslam was ambitious to become a specialist mad-doctor, and thus had a profound and personal – if unconscious – need to manifest appropriate specimens of madness. Matthews remained a peacemaker – the accounts of Bethlem staff stress that he was always striving to resolve conflicts – but Haslam, by insisting on imposing his will on his patients, made such resolutions impossible. The Air Loom, perhaps, was not merely the product of Matthews’ unconscious mind, but of Haslam’s too: forced into existence to satisfy the doctor’s unacknowledged needs and desires. Matthews recorded that the gang frequently referred to him as their ‘talisman’, the key to their plan of world domination; but Matthews was equally Haslam’s talisman, the doctor’s secret weapon in his own grand schemes.

With or without such radical interpretations of authorship, Illustrations of Madness must nevertheless be regarded not simply as a doctor’s psychiatric report on his patient but a genuine collaboration between the two men.

Matthews and Haslam were tireless antagonists throughout the years, each ready at any moment to denounce the other as raving lunatic or sadistic fraud. While Haslam was taking notes on his patient, Matthews was simultaneously taking notes on his doctor, and his lengthy accusations of ill-treatment would eventually see Haslam dismissed from his post and professionally disgraced. Yet Haslam commissioned the image of the Air Loom from Matthews, and Matthews was happy to oblige; Matthews read the finished manuscript, which included large sections in his own hand, and approved the final text. Haslam made a point of declaring that ‘these opinions have been collected from the patient…where inverted commas are used, the manuscript of Mr. Matthews has been faithfully copied; and that for thus introducing his philosophic opinions to the notice of a discerning public, he feels ‘contented and grateful’’. There is no reason to disbelieve Haslam on this – indeed, it was important to his claims of skilled observation that the patient should recognise the account that the doctor gave of him.

Rarely can a collaboration have taken place between two authors with such different intents. Haslam preserved the Air Loom for posterity to buttress his claims to psychiatric authority; Matthews contributed in order to warn the world of the dark forces that had already achieved the ultimate coup d’êtat, one that had taken control of the world in such a way that only one person had noticed. But two centuries later, the Air Loom has become something that neither of its authors could have guessed at: not the solipsistic ravings of a forgotten lunatic, but the first appearance of a myth of the modern age. The machine that controls the mind has emerged from its obscure corner of psychiatry to mesmerise the broader culture, its image now endlessly amplified and recycled through the mass media and the Hollywood dream machine. The Air Loom is a creature of the imagination that has become ever more recognisable as telephone, television and computer have colonised the texture of our reality, creating a world where rays, ethers, beams and particles assail us constantly, powering inscrutable machines that project shadow worlds into our minds from unseen basements and cellars, stimulating our senses and manipulating our thoughts.

In 1810, the Air Loom was real – but only to James Tilly Matthews. Now, perhaps, it is beginning to come into focus for the rest of us.



A version of this article first appeared (in English and German) in the catalogue of the Prinzhorn Collection’s exhibition ‘The Air Loom and Other Dangerous Influencing Machines’ (2006). It was reproduced (English only) in the catalogue of Ghosts in the Machine (New Museum, New York 2012).

In 2002, the artist Rod Dickinson built the Air Loom from James Tilly Matthews’ plans. It has been exhibited at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle (2002-3) and the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg (2006-7). Images are archived at www.theairloom.org

Related Book: The Influencing Machine