30 July 2012


Mike Jay. The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness. Bantam, 2004.

James Tilley Matthews may have the unhappy distinction of being the first “modern madman”, that is the first person to present clear symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia as it is understood today. The story Jay tells is a fascinating one, Matthews had become involved with a radical politician, David Williams, and his scheme to prevent war between Britain and revolutionary France.
As the situation between the two countries deteriorated Williams pulled out, but Matthews continued, even when the two countries were at war. As a result both sides suspected him of being a spy, and he ended up under house arrest in Paris during the terror, and in imminent danger of being beheaded.
This was clearly a traumatic experience, and probably as a result of this on his release and return to Britain he began to develop the delusion that his plans for peace and been thwarted by a fantastical machine operated by a gang of freelance ruffians in the pay of Jacobin mesmerists, This machine was the air loom which could control peoples’ thoughts and actions by the manipulation of the noxious gases. He also fantasised about a well-developed cast of characters which operated the machine, such as Billy the King, Jack the Schoolmaster, the Glove Handed woman who operated the machine and the pathetic Charlotte who was held prisoner.

This air loom was the first example of what modern day psychiatrists call the influencing machine, which usually is said to operate by means of electromagnetic waves, infrasound, implants in the brain etc. This is an idea whose role in popular culture and ufology was examined by Martin Kottmeyer in Magonia 49 and 50), and is a staple in many conspiracy theories of the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ variety.

Jay points out that these visionary machines seem to contain intimations of coming technologies, as though the paranoid’s heightened state of vigilance allows them to read the zeitgeist. It is interesting that visionary rumours of things seen in the sky also have this cultural tracking, representing the future technology, at least as imagined at the time.

Matthews influencing machine centred around technical advances of the period, the work of Priestley and Lavoisier on gasses, Mesmer’s animal magnetism, and the mechanisation of the textile industry brought about by mass looms.

If this is a new vision, what, might we ask, did it replace. Jay gives us a clue, through he does not seem to realise its import. This is in the fuel that powered the machine “seminal fluid, male and female ... effluva of dogs, stinking human breath, stench from the cesspit and from the anus of the horse”; and in the description of the operators who “lie together in promiscuous intercourse and filthy community” These are classic images taken from witchcraft accusations around the world, the spells worked through manipulation of the of the most polluted and profane substances imaginable, and the witches total rejection of society’s structures and values.

Therefore the influencing machine represents the mechanisation and secularisation of witchcraft, with witches engaged a Satanic conspiracy against the godly order being replaced by political conspirators equally in the business of subverting the traditional order. Today this notion of secular witchcraft still applies with illness among people and animals, the crops not thriving, various faults and outrages in household appliances and other electrical and a variety of anomalous personal experiences which once might have been attributed to witchcraft now being ascribed to “electromagnetic energy”, microwaves and the like, and often being attributed to the machinations, accidental or deliberate of various obscure conspirators or experimenters.

In some cases the line between witchcraft and the influencing machine disappears all together as in Alastair McClellan’s Extrasensory Perception, Witchcraft, Spiritualism and Insanity (C W Daniels, 1958) in which the schizophrenic author attributed his woes to the actions of witches, but gave pseudoscientific explanations as to how their powers worked , which involved the psychic energy produced by torturing cats.

This mechanisation of the idea of witchcraft as a source of human ills mirrored the growing mechanisation of society as the industrial revolution proceeded. We can also see how Tilly’s fantasises of human beings turned into automata by machines would in many ways come true as the new factory system developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Similarly in our time it looks as hough the paranoid’s fantasy of being under constant surveillance is also coming true in today’s CCTV dominated security state. – Peter Rogerson.

This review was written for the first edition of this book, but it was never used in Magonia. A revised edition has now been published (2012) by Strange Attractor Press as The Influencing Machine: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom Gang. This new edition has an introduction by Oliver Sacks and contains newly discovered source material and previously unpublished illustrations. The Amazon link at the foot of the review is to the Strange Attractor edition. 

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