Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The curious case of Marsden Haddock's 'Androides, or Animated Mechanism'

Leeds Mercury, 24/12/1813
On this day 200 years ago, an interesting exhibition finally departed Leeds after a stay that had been extended due to heavy snow over the winter months. The Christmas Eve 1813 edition of the Leeds Mercury had carried an intriguing advertisement for the exhibition featuring one word in particular that leaps out at the modern reader: ‘Androides’.

The ‘Androides’ were a number of mechanical automata that an impresario called Marsden Haddock had been exhibiting in England and Scotland over the past 12 months. Haddock was a self described ‘organ builder’ (and in other earlier adverts a ‘machinist’) originally from Cork, who had exhibited much the same exhibition in London over 16 years earlier. Curiously, evidence of the exhibition being present in Britain in the intervening period seems to be thin on the ground until December 1812, when Haddock began displaying the automata in Edinburgh. We can only speculate why Haddock had chosen the moment that West Yorkshire Luddism was snuffed out to begin to display his exhibition again, reaching York by August 1813. At the very end of 1813, he had made his way to the heart of the cloth districts, and had set up his show at the ‘Mechanic Theatre’ (as he christened all of the venues he used), a concert room on Albion Street in Leeds.

Whilst it's possible that Haddock’s arrival in the West Riding, on almost the first anniversary of the York Special Commission, was a coincidence, on another level his visit was almost a natural consequence of the outcome of the trials. The suppression of Luddism in the West Riding had arguably cleared a large ideological space, leaving plenty of room for Haddock’s seemingly frivolous curiosities that actually masked a far more serious intent.

Many of us would be surprised to learn that mechanical automata are far from a recent invention, and have a history going back over 300 years. Automata had a history of being playthings for the rich, being conceptually driven by their view of an idealised utopia of obedient and automated subjects. With entrance prices of starting at 1 shilling, Haddock’s show was certainly not aimed at working people, although the automata on display had at one point no doubt been created by highly skilled but poorly paid artisan workers.

It was of little coincidence then that the ideology that lay behind automata could find a natural home in the West Riding – perhaps more than any other place in England at the time – in an environment where the croppers had been well and truly beaten by a capital given the full backing of the state, and where a manufacturing class and bourgeoisie had felt bold enough to publicly declare ‘may the Manufacturers and the Machinery of Yorkshire ever be uninterrupted’ in a toast to William Cartwright & Joseph Radcliffe some 5 months previously. In the same place whose ruling class had established that an intact machine was more valuable than a human life by a rough ratio of 2:1.

What is less well-known is that automata had directly influenced one of the leading figures amongst the manufacturers promoting automation in the cloth industries. Wolfgang von Kempelen’s ‘Turk’ chess player had inspired Edmund Cartwright (the brother of the reformer, Major John Cartwright) to create the power loom, an ‘innovation’ that had spelt misery for workers in Lancashire and Cheshire, and had met fierce resistance there during the Luddite disturbances of mid 1812. Ironically, the ‘Turk’ was a hoax – a confidence trick which was operated by a concealed human being – it could not have been built and also could not have worked without the direct application of human skill. On the contrary, Cartwright’s invention could only serve to displace human labour and make life more miserable for workers.

But while Edmund Cartwright had been influenced to create his power loom after an encounter with an automata – hoax or otherwise – others had earlier made more explicit links between the displacement of human labour and the use of automata. The eighteenth century French inventor & artist Jacques de Vaucanson had started his career as a builder of astonishingly complex automata, after schooling in anatomy. Vaucanson even tried to replicate biological functions in automata, being convinced there was little essential difference between his creations and human beings. He later turned his attentions to the textile industry, creating the first completely automated loom in 1745 which pioneered the use of punch cards to automate pattern control, an invention that would be refined much later by Jacquard and developed later still to input dates into early computers.

Haddock’s show had also previously contained an automata that was very much ahead of its time and squarely facing the future. His ‘writing automaton’ was ‘the size of a boy of five years old’ and could ‘write any word, words, or figures, in a round legible hand’. This description, from a flier of Haddock’s shows in London in the late eighteenth century, sounds exactly like Jaquet-Droz’s ‘The Writer’ (see video below). Droz’s automata had 6000 parts and utilised a wheel which controlled cams, enabling any word or sentence to be composed – according to Simon Schaffer, ‘The Writer’ was another ancestor of the programmable computer. But by the time Haddock had started touring his exhibition again, this particular automata was strangely absent from the show.

Marsden Haddock seems to be an elusive figure, about whom little is known. Indeed, the flier for his London show has been the only evidence cited in one or two books that mention his exhibition, and in those works, he remains firmly rooted in the late eighteenth century rather than the time of the Luddites and their resistance to automation. The automata themselves must have been expensive items to purchase, never mind display and tour. But then Irish trade directories from the late eighteenth century reveal that Haddock was a versatile capitalist, involved in the glassware trade, and owning a shop on Castle Street in Cork. Yet there was much more to Haddock than this and the automata meant for display. And although it’s possible he had consciously pulled the automata out of storage to exhibit them in an environment where the capitalist class were keen to see the products of automation – because he knew that the ideological struggles of the last two years could make them a sure fire hit with the victors – his commitment to automation much ran deeper than that. In 1820, we find Haddock and his son Edward bound for New York. Later still in 1828, Haddock registered a patent in New York for a sheet paper manufacturing machine – utilising  a mode of dipping ‘faster than by the old hand process’.

It’s entirely likely that Haddock had found the West Riding of Yorkshire an ideal place to display his current machines and to find inspiration for his future ones.

This blog was inspired by a chance discovery about Haddock's exhibition during countless hours of pouring through newspapers from this period, and by Simon Schaffer's excellent BBC4 documentary about C18th & C19th automata.

The quoted ratio of machines over human life has been roughly calculated from the fact that at least 41 shearing frames were destroyed and 17 Luddites executed in the West Riding.

A description of some of the automata Haddock displayed on his 1812-1814 tour appeared in a flier published to advertise Haddock's London exhibition in 1797:

A Figure about Three Feet high, representing a Female Child, will be brought to a Table, where an Alphabet is placed, on which it will Spell any given Word.


At the Gate of which the PORTER stands, and when desired, rings the Bell; then the FRUITRESS comes out to attend the Company with any Fruit demanded, at pleasure; it will likewise take in Flowers, or any small Articles, and produce them again as called for. The different Fruits will be given in charge to a WATCH DOG, which barks on their being taken away, and ceases on their being returned. Next, the little CHIMNEY SWEEPER, comes from behind the House, enters the Side Door, presently ascends the Chimney, and cries “Sweep!” several times, then descends and goes off with his Bag full of Soot.


The LIQUOR MERCHANT stands at a Cask, from  which it will draw, at the choice of the Company, any of the following Liquors―Rum, Brandy, Gin, Whisky, Port, Mountain, Shrub, Raisin Wine, Peppermint, Anniseed, Carraway, and Usquebaugh. The WATER SERVER stands at a Pump to supply Water when ordered, and pumps, or ceases, at the desire of any person present.


A Figure in the Highland Dress, which gives a rational Answer, by Motion, to any Question proposed, calculates Sums in Arithmetic, by striking its Sword on a Targe, and gives the amount of any number of Yards, Pounds, &c. at any given Price; strikes the Hours and Minutes, whenever asked, and also strikes the difference of Time between any Watch and the Time-piece on which it stands; beats Time to Music, &c.

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