The Air Loom Gang and Pendulum

By Mike Jay
By Amir D. Aczel

In recent years there has been a surge in popularity for short books dealing with some peculiar personality or odd, overlooked chapter in scientific or cultural history. The name most closely identified with the genre is Simon Winchester, who has made a habit of turning out bestsellers on subjects like the Professor and the madman who worked together on the Oxford English Dictionary, William Smith and his map that changed the world (a geological map of Britain), and the eruption of Krakatoa. These books read like extended magazine articles, usually come with lots of illustrations, and cater to a non-specialist yet well educated audience of general readers looking to learn a little something in addition to being told a good story.

Pendulum is the story of the French scientist Léon Foucault and his invention of a simple experiment to demonstrate that the Earth turns. It’s a good story to turn into a work of popular science since Foucault was himself a great popularizer. By 1851, the year he presented his proof, most educated people knew that the Earth rotated about its axis and revolved around the Sun. But the rest of the world was in need of a “definitive, terrestrial proof.” For the general public, seeing would be believing.

Foucault, a self-made scientist and do-it-yourselfer, was just the man to come up with such an experiment. By designing a pendulum free to swing in any direction and strictly controlling for the conditions of its initial movement he was able to show that the plane of the swing of the pendulum was fixed while the planet rotated beneath it. In a series of public demonstrations, most famously in the Paris Pantheon, his pendulum became famous.

Amir Aczel’s book is quite a sketch. In addition to covering Foucault’s unfortunately short career – which included such other highlights as his advanced determination of the speed of light, formulation of the sine law, and invention of the gyroscope, as well as the disappointment of his failure to gain admittance to the French Academy of Sciences – it goes on to cover a wide swathe of French history, including much of the life and times of Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III). There are many places where it seems spread too thin, and the narrative takes off on too many tangents, but it is still a brisk, informative read.

Mike Jay’s The Air Loom Gang is another historical/scientific vignette, but one that maintains a sharper focus. It tells the story of James Tilly Matthews, a man with some claim to be history’s first (diagnosable) paranoid schizophrenic.

By a strange series of circumstances, Matthews, a wholesale tea-merchant working in London, became involved with various progressive groups in France and England at the time of the French Revolution. Though a minor player, he did have “connections.” Unfortunately he also had dreams of being a major player, which led to some wild diplomatic missions as well as paranoid delusions of being controlled by a shadowy gang of political conspirators operating a machine he called an “Air Loom.”

Ideas like that, especially given Matthews’s connections, can be embarrassing to people in power. So he found himself in Bedlam, where he became one of the most famous case studies in psychiatric history. But as with so many case studies, the truth is even stranger.

In addition to being an intriguing story in its own right, full of real as well as imaginary plots and villains, The Air Loom Gang also has a lot to say about the history of psychiatric treatment and our understanding of madness. The madness of Matthews signified a shift in the framework of psychosis. A product of the industrial as well as the French Revolution, “he had slipped his fingers into a new rent in the cultural fabric, and ripped hard.” “What if the invisible power behind the real is no longer God, but a machine?” This is what made his madness visionary. “He was the first victim of the Air Loom, but by no means the last.”

The Air Loom Gang is a wonderful historical sketch, filled with popular culture, science, political history, and biography. Matthews’s story is presented with insight and sympathy, and its modern relevance explored with imagination and intelligence.

It’s even better than Winchester.

Review first published January 10, 2004.


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