Tag Archives: history

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.




Early civilizations were entirely comfortable setting a price on human life. In early medieval  Germanic societies, for example, a murderer might be required to pay a weregild to the relatives of his victim. The weregild was the worth of a person determined in large part by their social rank. Livestock, coins, or precious objects were exchanged and justice was deemed to have been served. Though the practice of paying a weregild was replaced with capital punishment by the 12th century, the idea that a person’s life could be measured by the worth of goods persisted.

As members of a modern technological society we like to think of ourselves as culturally superior to our brutal ancestors. Our communities no longer exist on such a thin margin of survival that we can’t afford to punish someone for his or her crimes. Add to that centuries of philosophical, scientific, and cultural development and we are well past the days where a person’s life amounts to no more than a portion of wealth determined by his or her social rank.

We give those ideas lip service, but we all realize that behind the veneer of enlightened culture we still inhabit a world where the idea of a weregild exists. Individually we might profess to believe that all people are equal, or that human life is infinitely precious, but the hard truth is that in practice our collective actions assign everybody a monetary value.

My thoughts were prompted by a brief article about a man who deliberately committed a crime to access adequate healthcare, but healthcare is only one way in which we assign value to people. Healthcare is a hot topic these days, but the central issue that all the pundits and politicians dance around is that the cost of healthcare is really the maximum value we are willing to place on those who occupy the lowest tiers of social rank. The one new twist that modern societies have added is that now the victim must pay the weregild to those who are willing to let him or her die.

Placing a monetary value on a person is not as simple as determining healthcare costs. What about education, infrastructure, housing – or less concrete ideas like opportunity, freedom, equality, justice. How do we determine what each person is worth when paying for those fundamental things that we claim are the bedrock of our compassionate, civilized societies?

This is a good place for a small digression. What is this thing – this money – against which we measure human lives? Money is a metaphor. Dollars, Euros, Yen, Rubles – they all represent the perceived value of an idea. Not even the perceived value of a specific commodity, but the perceived value of an idea. Money doesn’t exist. Money is, in some ways, a universal delusion that humanity has decided to believe is real. This entity that so dominates our lives, that in so many cases determines the length and quality of those lives, is just a concept given the illusion of form by numbers and pieces of paper.

When the 9th century Anglo-Saxons exchanged livestock as reparations for a person’s life, they gave each other real things for an act that had already been committed. A sheep or a cow, or even some coins, were things that could help a family survive the absence of the murdered person. The weregild was a way of preventing more deaths.

Today we put a price on an individual based on what we expect that person to contribute to society. We calculate a person’s potential monetary contribution and place a maximum value on a human life. People in shiny glass towers and neoclassic monuments shuffle around imaginary metaphors and we praise them for contributing to the wealth of the world. Our version of the weregild is not about preventing more deaths and ensuring the survival of a community, but about choosing who deserves life. And in the choosing what kind of a community do we create?