Tag Archives: James Sadler

George Smart’s Infernal Machine

The brief but startling report below appeared in the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal for Friday 3 February 1804, appended to reports of storms and so forth from the paper’s correspondent in Frant, near Tunbridge Wells, clearly an enthusiast for italics. It re-appeared in a number of papers for that month – the Chester Courant, the Lancaster Gazette, the Staffordshire Advertiser and probably others, since column-filling copy was freely filched in those days, and soon went viral (or as viral as anything could be in 1804), arriving by April almost word for word in The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, and no doubt elsewhere.

INFERNAL MACHINE

A very ingenious young man of the name of Smart, a journeymen taylor in this parish, has invented an infernal machine, which, when placed in any point of contact against an invading force, is capable of destroying a thousand men in a minute. The expence, I am told, will be small when compared with its utility. He leaves this [place] on Monday morning to explain to the Duke of Richmond, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, of[sic] the model of his machine, &c.; it has met the general approbation of all the Gentlemen Volunteer Officers in that neighbourhood; the inventor is a volunteer himself, though a tailor. Should it meet the approbation of the Duke of Richmond, Smart will undertake to conduct it himself into the center of the enemy’s legions; the great merit in the construction of this machine is, that he can remain in perfect safety in the center, while he deals death and destruction to all around him, and he is capable of re-charging in ten minutes; and it can be moved with one horse, with the greatest facility, at the rate of eight miles an hour.

In the British Library copy of this paper the original owner, a compulsive annotator, has noted beneath in wobbly copperplate: “Remark the above”, as well he might.

So far, I’ve been unable to discover the Duke’s reaction, on which the papers seem silent. Not very enthusiastic, one suspects. Nor does there seem to be any image of Smart’s model of his invention, but the description may give some clues. “Any point of contact” suggests something circular, on a turret principle, while “a thousand men in a minute” surely implies a primitive machine gun; note that “re-charging” would take a full ten minutes. And for the operator to “remain in perfect safety in the centre” must have required some sort of protective plating. What comes to mind is a one-man, horse-drawn version of Leonardo’s celebrated armoured vehicle of 1487, or maybe a covered version of James Sadler’s “moving battery”, or “curricle flying artillery” discussed in this post. (Though Sadler’s vehicle required one man to load and one to fire, plus a driver.) I’m left wondering how Smart’s machine would have gone on if and when the horse was shot, which seems the obvious weakness.

If we know no more about the infernal machine itself, we know quite a lot about its inventor, although, beyond his time in the Pevensey Legion, this seems to have been his single military moment. The Tunbridge Wells tailor George Smart (1775-1846) has become something of a rediscovered hero of English folk art, on account of his quirky cloth collage portraits, sold from his cottage, branded as “Smart’s Repository”. An 1830 view of Frant, with the tiny figure of Smart outside the Repository (right of the carriage) seems to be the only image we have of him. The “artist in cloth and velvet figures” was a tireless self-publicist, often in verse:

Come here, I say, come here ye quizzers,
Who laugh at Taylors and at scissors,
And see how Smart makes that utensil
Out-do the Chisel, Brush and Pencil.
With Genius Quick, and true to nature,
He makes a suit for every creature;
And fits alike the whole creations,
In newest style the latest Fashion …

And so on. In his later years, Smart cultivated a conspicuously eccentric character, but his notoriety and affluence faded, and on his death in 1846 he was given a pauper’s burial. A useful outline of his life and career by James Gregory is available here, and a full length study by Hector Medora, focused mainly on the folk art, is downloadable here. A Smart blog, promoting the art book by Jonathan Christie, is here.

Finally, my favourite Smart collage, a version of his Earth Stopper. The effect of the “apparition” on the gent on horseback must be akin to that anticipated by Smart of the appearance of his infernal machine among the enemy legions.

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Sadler’s chimerical Sharpshooters

As it happens, this blog takes its title from the dedication page of Loyal Volunteers, Ackermann and Rowlandson’s gigantic 1799 compendium of London armed associations. I’ve always thought one of the more interesting entries to be plate 46, which shows a member of Sadler’s Sharp Shooters – “a Light Infantry Man defending himself with [James] Sadler’s Patent Gun & long cutting Bayonet.” The figure is chic in a Tarleton and dark blue jacket and pantaloons with red trim. The “patent gun” appears rather short, but the bayonet is enormous.

sadlers
Some copies of Loyal Volunteers also contain an unnumbered and spectacular plate portraying “Sadler’s Flying Artillery” (high res image here) showing the nearest we get to Georgian tank warfare – two guns of Sadler’s own invention mounted on a light carriage drawn by two horses. In the text to the first plate this is described as “the celebrated War Chariot, in which two persons, advancing or retreating, can manage two pieces of Ordnance (three-pounders) with alacrity, and in safety, so as to do execution at the distance of two furlongs.” Options for “advancing or retreating” were enabled by setting the guns on a turret; to reverse their fire the gunners simply switched seats. As James Sadler had not got round to inventing armour plate, I’m uncertain about their “safety”, but you can’t have everything.

war chariot
The patent gun and the flying artillery were real enough, their virtues detailed by their inventor in his own Account of Various Improvements in Artillery, Fire-Arms, &c of 1798. According to Mark Davies’s biography of Sadler, both “musquet” and “moving battery”, or “curricle flying artillery”, were unveiled on June 4 1798, the King’s birthday. With the backing of Secretary at War William Windham, the latter was demonstrated successfully before royalty in 1798 and 1800, and may possibly have been shipped abroad with the army on the expedition to Holland in 1799 at the behest of the Duke of York and under the care of Sadler’s son, James junior.

sadler

James Sadler

Equally real, perhaps even larger than life, was James Sadler himself – aeronaut, inventor, chemist, naval technologist, steam engineer, creator of “philosophical fireworks”, barracks master and confectioner. There is, not surprisingly, a good deal of information available online about this extraordinary man; much more could be said about him than I have space for here, and Google will soon find it for you.

But if the guns and their inventor were real, how actual were the Sharp Shooters? I have to own up to some big doubts. Rowlandson’s fine plate is dated September 1798, but its accompanying text of August 1799 admits tartly that the corps was, even one year on, “but inconsiderable in number” and “in so imperfect a state as not to admit of illustration satisfactory to the Public.” However, it was “intended to extend them to a degree of respectability,” after which they would hopefully “join with the Westminster Associations”. A tad dysfunctional, then!

The text lists no officers (included with every other plate), not even the “ingenious Machinist” himself, but blags quaintly that the corps “is shortly to be officered by the Honourable the Board of Ordnance.” I can find no officers for the Sharp Shooters in the Gazette, members of the Board of Ordnance or not, and according to Mark Davies both the patent rifles and the war chariot were used in 1798 by the Pimlico Volunteers, with whom Sadler had some sort of connection.

sadlers medal 2There exists, however, a medal for the Sharp Shooters, for “Best Shot at Ball Practice,” awarded to a Corporal William Staples, which was sold a few years back at a prestigious auction house. However, the figure on the medal is dressed in a round hat with a tall feather, while the award is dated September 30 1802 – a time at which the corps might be expected to have stood down, like every other volunteer unit, following the Treaty of Amiens earlier that year, rather than hold a shooting match. I’m no expert on volunteer medals, but I have read that some are known fakes, and it must be simple enough to engrave something feasible on a silver blank. In Irwin’s War Medals and Decorations of 1910 this actual medal is said to be then in the collection of a Colonel Gaskell, so if it’s a fake, it’s a vintage fake.

If genuine, it may be the single surviving piece of evidence to confirm the existence of Sadler’s corps as a functioning military outfit outside the pages of Rowlandson’s Loyal Volunteers. Or were the chimerical Sharp Shooters merely a good intention? Or an ingenious PR fiction created to publicise their director’s inventions?