A Secret History of…

the mechanical soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. 

The wars of Revolutionary France and Napoleon swept across the European continent and the world at the turn of the 19th century. Accounts of the battles and politicking of the era can be found in histories, in novels, in films, and on stage, but few, if any sources, mention the one man whose mad dream almost changed the course of history.

Wolfgang von Kempelen - Self Portrait

Wolfgang von Kempelen was born in the town of Pressberg in the mid 18th century. The von Kempelen family was of the minor nobility under the rule of the Habsburg Emperors, but they had seen their fortunes decline in recent generations. The young Wolfgang von Kempelen felt the sting of contempt and condescension when he accompanied his father to court dressed in worn and out of date fashions.  With the memory of whispers and sneers to goad him, Wolfgang became determined to reverse his family’s decline.

von Kempelen excelled at languages and mathematics and when he attended university he pursued philosophy and law as was expected of a gentleman of his station. His true passion and genius, however, lay with the new mechanical wonders of the age and he spent every spare moment studying physics and sketching new designs. The ambitious and hard working Wolfgang invented steam turbines for mills, water pumps for mines, and even a typewriter for the blind.

Still a young man, von Kempelen’s skill as an engineer drew the attention and patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II. In the service of the Emperor, Wolfgang produced designs for machines, devices, bridges, and buildings, all the while gaining esteem and influence in the courts.

Wolfgang’s inventions were innovative and useful, but he was not satisfied with pushing the boundaries of science and technology in incremental steps. Since his university days in Rome, Wolfgang experimented with designs that would far exceed anything yet seen. As unrest gripped Europe in the late 18th century, he saw a chance to present his plans to the Emperor.

In March of 1789 von Kempelen unveiled the designs of his ambitious new machines. He called them der mechanisch soldat. von Kempelen proposed to create an army of autonomous, mechanical soldiers that would defend the Empire against all enemies. The Emperor was unconvinced. Automata were relatively common in the late 18th century, and although they could be entertaining and create the illusion of autonomous behavior, the machines were limited to strict mechanical paths.

An Engraving of The Turk

In anticipation of the Emperor’s skepticism, von Kempelen had created a prototype to prove his concept. He called it The Turk. von Kempelen’s turbaned, mechanical Ottoman held a pipe in a jeweled hand and lounged on cushions before an ornate chessboard. Pistons and gears powered by tanks of compressed air animated the Turk’s limbs, and though the smooth movements of his joints were marvels of engineering, the true genius lay nestled within the mechanisms of gross mechanical movements. A delicate clockwork of springs, levers, and cogwheels powered The Turk’s mind.

von Kempelen had invented a complex and sophisticated computer based not on electronics, but on mechanical pathways. The Turk, using a bewildering array of nested if/then commands, defeated even the most acclaimed master chess player in the Empire. von Kempelen hoped the success of his demonstration would win him the support of the Emperor in his plan to build an army of such machines.

Many of the Emperor’s advisors, particularly his generals, opposed what came to be known as the von Kempelen plan. Some were merely reactionaries who rejected any new idea. Some saw the plan as a threat to their own power and prestige. A few had genuine military concerns. von Kempelen might have been able to convince the latter group, but those whose only concern was to protect their power and prestige proved to be an insurmountable obstacle – at least for the moment. The Turk was a marvel, but the Emperor declined to back the von Kempelen plan.

Affairs in France threatened the stability of Eurpoe as unrest became revolution. In 1794, the Emperor’s great-aunt, Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was executed along with her husband. The Holy Roman Empire went to war. In 1796 Napoleon took command of the French forces in Italy, drove the Empire out of the peninsula, and forced the Emperor to sign a treaty. Both sides understood that peace was only temporary.

With the failure of the Imperial armies in Italy fresh in the Emperor’s mind, von Kempelen took the opportunity to once again propose his daring plan. Although the Emperor was still reluctant to fully commit to the project, he agreed to let von Kempelen begin production on a limited scale. When war broke out again in 1799, von Kempelen sent 500 of his new soldiers, nicknamed the Brass Battalion, into battle.

To be continued…

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4 responses to “A Secret History of…

  1. I’ve heard a rumour that von Kempelen, upon the rejection of the Turk, sought solace and inspiration with Descartes’ daughter. True?

    • True in a sense. He once met and danced with Descartes’ daughter and was so charmed that he later attempted to construct a mechanical replica of her. The replica provided inspiration in the sense that he realized the limitations of the technology and strove to overcome them, but he never found solace – only an unrequited longing for something that simply couldn’t be.

      • Alas! A replica of a replica – could he, I wonder, have known how close he was? I guess I’ll have to wait to see if any of the Brass Battalion could dance.

  2. Pingback: A Secret History of… | Imaginary Robot

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