Category Archives: 19th Century

A Secret History of…

…the mechanical soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars.

Continued from Part I

Imperial forces once again faced Bonaparte in Italy. Despite von Kempelen’s assurances and the Emperor’s tentative support, the Imperial general staff refused to commit the Brass Battalion to action in Italy citing the difficulty of transporting the battalion across the Alps. In a decisive campaign, Bonaparte defeated the Imperial army and von Kempelen used the court’s increasing apprehension as leverage to assure that his soldiers were to be deployed in any further military action.

General Moreau

The chance for a real combat test came in 1800 when the French, commanded by General Moreau, engaged the Imperial army under the command of Archduke John in southern Germany. Archduke John commanded a force numbering 130,000 men, but he had almost no military experience. The French Army of the Rhine numbered 100,000 men, and Moreau’s abilities rivaled those of Napoleon.

On December 3rd, 1800, near the town of Hohnlinden, the disorganized Imperial army stumbled upon the French. The Brass Battalion, led by Major Haas, marched with the Archduke in the center of three columns. As the initial contact began to develop into a major battle it became apparent that confusion reigned in the Imperial army and the three columns lacked clear coordination. The disciplined, veteran French army exploited the Archduke’s lack of experience, executing a series of flank attacks on the center of the Imperial force.

The coordinated actions of the French quickly caused the poorly led Imperial army to disintegrate, but the Brass Battalion held fast in the center. The 500 mechanical soldiers formed an island against which waves of cavalry and infantry broke. Other Imperial soldiers – those who hadn’t already fled – took heart from the steadfast discipline of the Brass Battalion and drew in around them. The battle was lost. 500 soldiers, no matter how well they performed, could only delay the oncoming French. Yet even against such overwhelming odds they were able to protect the Archduke and execute an orderly withdrawal at the cost of over half their number. The battle was a catastrophe, but von Kempelen’s mechanical soldiers were an unmitigated triumph.

On hearing of the efficacy of the Brass Battalion, the Emperor made von Kempelen “Master of Mechanics” and ordered him to begin production of a true army. The battlefield disaster once again allowed the French to force the Emperor into signing an unfavorable treaty, but for von Kempelen the disaster was a triumph. At the moment of his greatest success, however, he made a fatal error.

Archduke John

Flush with his new power and the realization of his childhood dreams, von Kempelen spoke publicly and derisively of the ability and intelligence of Archduke John as well as several other powerful generals. Whatever shortcomings the Archduke had on the field of war, he was a master in the political sphere. von Kempelen was a brilliant engineer, but he lacked the political savvy to defeat the Archduke in the political sphere.

The Archduke used all of his influence to sabotage von Kempelen’s progress. He delayed shipments of raw materials, made sure that components were sub standard, and used the intricate Imperial bureaucracy to endlessly tie up all of von Kempelen’s official correspondence. von Kempelen understood what the Archduke was doing, but his public and private entreaties were easily countered by the Archduke and his allies. The Emperor grew impatient with the slow progress of von Kempelen’s manufactories.

von Kempelen’s ultimate undoing came in 1802. Evidence, carefully manufactured and placed by the Archduke and his agents, surfaced implicating von Kempelen of massive corruption and negligence. There were also persistent rumors, again planted by the Archduke, that von Kempelen was selling some of his secret technology to the French. In fighting the Archduke’s previous attempts to slow down production of his mechanical soldiers, von Kempelen had been short tempered and abrasive. He had made too many enemies in court to counter these new assaults. von Kempelen was dismissed from the emperor’s service and official stories circulated that the mechanical soldiers had been nothing but an elaborate hoax.

By 1804 von Kempelen, disgraced, ruined, and exiled from court was dying of consumption. He had tried and failed to convince the Emperor of his innocence and back in his ancestral home in Pressberg, he wrote a last letter to the Emperor proclaiming his loyalty and urging his monarch to use his plans to counter Napoleon’s aggression. In a final spiteful move, the Archduke intercepted both the letter and the enclosed plans, burning them before they could reach the Emperor

Napoleon at Austerlitz

In November 1805 Napoleon defeated an allied force in the battle of Austerlitz. Unlike the Holy Roman Emperor, Napoleon recognized the danger posed by the threat of mechanical soldiers. In a symbolic act he forced Emperor Francis I to sign the treaty of Pressberg dissolving The Holy Roman Empire. The true and secret purpose of the treaty was to make sure that none of von Kempelen’s plans or works would survive. Even The Turk’s mechanical brain was smashed by French soldiers on the grounds of the old von Kempelen estate.

The Turk would later tour the United States, but by then it was just a carnival trick. The intricate construction that had truly powered the machine was gone, replaced with misdirection and a hidden human agent. A few spectators were convinced by the trick, but when the mummery was finally exposed, von Kempelen’s reputation suffered a last ignominious kick. One of the great geniuses of an age was doomed to be remembered as nothing more than a fraud.


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…