The Arrival of the Cogsmiths (oil on canvas, by Turner, 1815)

There they are, in the lower right corner of the painting. Ragged clothes, soot-smudged faces, tragedy written upon their faces. It’s a reasonably-sized painting (690.8 × 1190.4 cm), so you can see the details well enough. Faces weren’t William Turner’s forte, but he conveyed well their nuances.

Those were the faces of eight young men and women lost in the battlefields of Europe without their master. Faces who didn’t know their bodies would survive.

It was no easy feat.

Almost four years crossing Europe in the worst times ever. They lost one of their friends to war, another to disease, and another that they believed lost forever was returned to them.

None of these things are shown in the painting. But the chiaroscuro, the play of light and shadow and the color in the faces of the Cogsmiths, their tired, fearful expressions when they, finally in the safety of Dover, run to the friendly embrace of an old, benign James Watt—whose son commissioned this painting many years after the fact.

The Cogsmiths have arrived on Dover by 1809, after years of tribulations crossing Europe in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. It was not of their will to do so. Neither of their master.

A few years before, Viktor Frankenstein had reunited in his castle the very best of the English natural philosophers in order to see his accomplishment. The Steam Man, a creature in almost everything like a man, but not quite. It was what the old Greeks called an automaton.

Among these philosophers were Matthew Boulton and James Watt, who had just founded a company to build their own steam engines. They saw promise in Frankenstein’s Steam Man—or Diener, German for servitor, as he called the creature.

Boulton and Watt had the expertise, material and factories; Frankenstein had a fortune. They proposed a partnership to him. Having corresponded for some years with Watt, Frankenstein had already given that thought some consideration, and he promptly accepted.

In 1801, a few months after the reunion of brilliant minds at Lake Geneva, Viktor Frankenstein accepted the suggestion of Boulton and Watt and hired a group of young men and women to work for him as apprentices. They soon gathered into a fellowship of sorts, and gave it the name of The Cogsmiths.

After a year of hardship teaching his apprentices the tools of the trade, Frankenstein traveled to Lyon, where he visited a certain Joseph-Marie Jacquard. This man, who was already starting to attract attention from outside, had devised an ingenious technique to improve the working of his looms: the use of perforated cards. Those cards configurated certain positions in the rows of threads.

Frankenstein could see the practical applications in this technique in the workings of cogs, rods and cables in his automaton. He promptly went to see this man Jacquard.

They worked together pretty well. In mere weeks, Frankenstein could teach Jacquard how to make better looms using metal parts, and Jacquard returned the favor teaching Viktor the principle behind the Vaucanson cards. The Swiss inventor returned to his castle in a state of bliss.

Unfortunately, Viktor’s wasn’t the only attention Jacquard’s loom attracted. The recently self-appointed French Consul for Life Napoleon Bonaparte had heard of the wonders of the Lyon’s looms and paid the city a visit.

Upon seeing the invention of Jacquard, Napoleon gave him not only a prize but also a stipend for life. Being a profoundly ethical man, Jacquard felt obliged to point out he shouldn’t be the only one to receive that homage, for if not for his friend Viktor Frankenstein, also a marveilleuse inventor, his loom would not had achieved its success.

Then Bonaparte became very interested in Frankenstein’s invention.

Alas, he could not go to Lake Geneva himself. But, as that region was officially part of France now and not of Switzerland, he sent a squadron to invite Monsieur Viktor Frankenstein (for, though he considered himself a Swiss citizen, his castle at Lake Geneva was in fact part of France then) to visit him in Paris.

The soldiers, under Lieutenant Henri Beyle (who later would write an account of those days by the pseudonym of Stendhal), had orders to take him by force if necessary, as well as his automaton.

They never did. While Viktor Frankenstein stayed in his castle to try to save part of the equipment and of the documents (or destroy all of his research if necessary), the band of eight young men and women fled Castle Frankenstein not to return. They were instructed by their master to go straight to England and look for James Watt, who would welcome them into his foundry.

The timing was the worst possible. In April 1805, the United Kingdom and Russia signed a treaty with the aim of removing the French from Holland and Switzerland. Lake Geneva was in the middle of the first conflagrations to that effect.

(Later, an unauthorized account of their travels would attribute part of their escapade through France to the help of a certain Sir Percy Blakeney and his “League of the Scarlet Pimpernel”, though this could never be proved. Neither could it be disproved, as it were.)

They had to resort to everything they had learned in years in the Frankenstein Laboratories in Geneva if they wanted to survive.

Their influence would not be felt until much later, but then it would be late for anyone—Napoleon or any other monarch of government, or even their patron and former master, Viktor Frankenstein—to stop the march of progress. For progress it was.

While their master was to be acclaimed worldwide as the Father of the Mechanical Brains, the Cogsmiths would be considered the fathers and mothers of what came to be called then by popular press and workers as the Infernal Devices—nothing more than our modern “smart machines”: contraptions that, if not possessing intellects as the “descendants” of Frankenstein’s automaton—the long-gone Machinekind of sad memory - were at least capable of executing several tasks without the aid of their human owners and handlers.

Even with all their expertise, however, the Cogsmiths could not fix their master’s greatest creation. The metal, steam-powered automaton, which the former apprentices (now masters themselves, forged in the fires of many conflagrations) had to dismantle in order to carry with them incognito in their travels, was so battered that they thought it would never work again. The automaton, hidden in several sacks of cloth, does not appear in the painting. We know, however, that he did recover, although the details of how this came to be are forever lost to us.

This painting can be seen currently in the Maschinhistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna.


Editor’s Corner

Couldn't connect to