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The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness
Mike Jay
Four Walls Eight Windows, 320 pages

The Air Loom Gang
Mike Jay
Mike Jay is the author of Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century and Blue Tide: The Search for Soma. He is the editor of Artificial Paradises: A Drugs Reader, 1900: A Fin-de-Siècle Reader, and Underworld of the East. He lives in London.

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Four Walls Eight Windows

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

I'm taking a slight departure from my usual review fare to look at The Air Loom Gang, an unusual work of non-fiction, because I think it's likely to intrigue the eclectic SF/F reader or writer.

In 1810, Dr. John Haslam published "Illustrations of Madness," a detailed study of an articulate, educated patient who believed that his mind was being controlled by a gang of revolutionary thugs operating a secret machine called an "Air Loom." Haslam's landmark treatise about patient James Tilly Matthews earned a place in the history of psychiatry as the first example of an "influencing machine," or as author Mike Jay put it:

"For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through their fillings, or their TV sets, or via high-tech surveillance, MI-5, Masonic lodges, or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero."
Understandably nobody at the time believed in the Air Loom, any more than they believed Matthews' other claims: that he had undertaken secret missions to France during the last days of the French Revolution, or that he had been imprisoned in Bedlam (the famous London mental hospital) by enemies in the English government. But extensive digging by Mike Jay has revealed a startling likelihood: that this is one paranoid who had real enemies, and most of what he related was true.

The Air Loom Gang is a fascinating account of one man's unusual and ultimately tragic life during an age of great political, social and scientific upheaval. Matthews' incarceration at Bedlam occurred amid a fundamental shift in medicine, when doctors first began trying to diagnose and treat madness as a disease, rather than a moral failing or act of God (a movement triggered, in part, by the notorious madness of King George in the late 1780s).

The late 18th century was also political turning point, with millennia-old monarchies threatened by demands for representative government. Matthews, a London tea merchant, was an idealist and political dissenter who supported the republican revolution in France. He most certainly travelled to France as an emissary to the revolutionary government and tried to carry messages back to the English government -- a dangerous game to play even in England, where alarmed officials were clamping down on civil rights (with rhetoric uncomfortably reminiscent of 9/11).

In this vein, it's chilling to consider just how much of this first "clear-cut" scientific account of paranoid-schizophrenia was based upon erroneous assumptions. While James Tilley Matthews certainly suffered from delusions -- possibly even caused by the conditions at Bedlam -- author Mike Jay reveals him as a compelling, intelligent man striving to survive a nightmare. Imaginative, idealistic, and forward-thinking, Matthews might even, in another age, have been a science fiction writer....

Copyright © 2004 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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