The Infernal Machine

The Infernal Machine Tales of History and Imagination


Trigger Warning, This Tale discusses gun violence. If an account of a mass shooting is likely to upset, it’s fine to give this one a miss. I’ll be back in a fortnight with a tale of Kenyan wildlife and other things.

This week’s Tale begins on the Boulevard du Temple; in Paris, France. The date, 28th July 1835. The Boulevard is a street many of us might feel we know, even if – like myself – you’ve never visited the City of Lights before. A man named Louis Daguerre pointed a new-fangled device out of a window in 1839, shooting down at ‘crime boulevard’ as the street was then known. In doing so he shot the first human – with a camera. The mirror image, known as a Daguerreotype, regularly makes it onto content-farm articles on early photography. Though ant-like, at least one person is discernible in the otherwise quiet street scene.

One must imagine the scene in July 1835 rather differently. The street was overflowing with soldiers in their best attire. This was the day King Louis Philippe I, a man not generally given to displays of pomp and wealth, inspected the Paris National Guard as they stood to attention. Two week’s after that more famous revolutionary date, July 14th, which commemorates the 1789  storming of Bastille prison – people were out in force to celebrate the July Revolution of 1830, which swept him into power over the rightful heir – His eleven year old 2nd cousin.     

At around midday the king was nearing 50 Boulevard du Temple with an entourage which included three of his sons and a collection of high-ranking officers. A sudden flash was seen from a third floor window, accompanied by a rain of gunfire. Tearing through the crowd, this rapid-fire burst of lead felled eighteen bystanders, badly injuring 22 more. Of the survivors, many were so badly wounded they required amputations. It’s intended target, the King, escaped with only a cut to the forehead. The assault ended just as drastically as it begun. The weapon responsible had partially backfired, injuring the assailant, who then fled the scene leaving a telltale trail of blood behind. 

The killer, a Corsican former soldier named Giuseppe Marco Fieschi – who served in the French army in Napoleon’s time. He went off to fight in Russia with the Grande Armee who had been so decimated by both weather and Russian counter attack. This must have been a truly harrowing, traumatic experience for anyone to live through. Post war, Fieschi signed up as a mercenary in the service of the former King of Naples. When an attempt to overthrow the current Neapolitan regime went badly, he fled to France as a refugee.

Soon after his arrival, he was arrested and jailed for ten years for cattle theft. Embittered, he became embroiled in revolutionary circles upon his release. With two other plotters, Fieschi built a weapon known as ‘The Infernal Machine’ for the sole purpose of killing Louis Philippe. It had twenty five barrels aligned side by side, all set on the same downward trajectory. Each was full of shot, and would fire simultaneously on a single trigger. While this sounds in effect vaguely like a machine gun – the infernal machine was a volley gun – capable of firing just the once before it needed re-loading. Volley guns could be found in use as early as the fifteenth century, but were rarely used – A cannon loaded with grapeshot could imitate a volley gun, while a volley gun couldn’t fire cannon balls. The name ‘the infernal machine’ says all you need to know, however. A year before the release of the first truly effective assault rifle, the Drayse needle gun, the world was still in the era of the blunderbuss and the musket. A gun which could kill or wound forty in the blink of an eye was absolutely hellish.   

Before we move on from this infernal machine, I should point out Fieschi was soon caught, his accomplices rounded up, and all were sent to the guillotine – another new-ish technology with a surprisingly long history of antecedents.

From one infernal machine to another.

The machine gun came about, believe it or not, with all the good intentions in the world. Richard Gatling built his Gatling gun, the first working machine gun – in the hope of saving lives. Gatling was a North Carolina native who mostly invented farming equipment. One day he read an article stating more soldiers died in war from disease than in battle. This left him aghast. He believed he could save millions of lives in the future if he could create a machine which let a few men do the work of several units. Gatling hoped this innovation would lead to less soldiers on the battlefield, and therefore less death. The Gatling gun debuted in 1862, in the midst on the extremely bloody American Civil War, where more – not less, soldiers were sent out to fight. The Gatling gun had a hand crank which powered it, so was still a way off from machine guns as we know them, but it was used to horrific effect in several wars from the 1860s till the turn of the century. It was used to gun down thousands of Zulu, Chinese, Japanese, Spaniards, Chilean, Native Americans and Filipino among others. A fully automated reloading mechanism would come along and it’s inventor, William Cantelo, would have even more blood on his hands…

Who?? You ask…

I’m being a little facetious- maybe? Let’s reset the stage. 

This tale restarts in the late 1870s. Neighbours of the Tower Inn, a Southampton pub, have wondered aloud for months the origin of an ungodly noise coming from the pub’s basement. The landlord, one William Cantelo, was a man of varied interests. The son of an Isle of Wight publican and brush maker, William studied engineering as a younger man. On arrival at the coastal town, he set up a foundry specialising in making boat propellers. He soon diversified, buying a pub. Besides his business interests he also found the time to play in the local brass band. An endless tinkerer, Cantelo set up a workshop in the tunnel beneath the pub. 

We already know what he was working on down there. Machine guns were the thing that year. Gatling invented his gun through poorly thought out humanitarian motives. A new-found drive among seven European nations to conquer and exploit the life out of Africa from around 1870, (kicking into high gear in 1885) was the main driver for many recent military innovations. The other side of that ledger, European armies had seen a marked drop in young men signing up for service after the Crimean War. This, more than anything, necessitated new methods of killing people at scale. After Gatling, Swedish inventor Thorstein Nordenfelt built a hand-cranked gun in 1873. William Gardner, an Ohio based former army captain built his Gardner Gun a year later. These weapons were a step in the right direction, but if someone could make something fully automatic – possibly loading the next bullet off the energy generated from the gun’s recoil? – that was the holy grail. 

Some time in 1880 it was said, William came up from his basement to announce he had finally solved that problem. He was the inventor of the world’s first true automatic machine gun. When some young chap faced off against a wall of angry locals waving their Assegai, Akrafena or Trumbash at them, that young man could rest assured that he had a Cantelo Gun, and they have not – as Hilaire Belloc might have said in a different future timeline. His two sons and daughter must also have been quietly overjoyed at the prospect of a decent night’s sleep, free of the rat-a-tat-tat from father’s infernal machine. It’s claimed soon after, William announced to his family he was going on a well-earned holiday. Given the same sources claim his sons helped him pack his gun for travel, it’s far more likely he left on a business trip – and hoped to find a buyer for the weapon. Little did his children know, but as he set off, this was the last time they would ever see him. 

Well, the last verified time in any case. He never returned home. His children did their best to find him, but were unsuccessful. They hired a private investigator, who confirmed William sailed to the USA, but could not trace him further. Their snowy-haired, bushy-bearded father was lost to them. 

Then, in 1882 a rather remarkable man man emigrated to the United Kingdom. Born in Sangerville, Maine in 1840, Hiram Maxim was quite the up and coming engineer. He created an asthma inhaler, a mouse trap, a curling iron for one’s hair, and steam pumps. He had a disputed claim to having really invented the electric light bulb. Years later, but before the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kittyhawk, a prototype aeroplane he was working on broke free of it’s tethers and flew – though it’s a stretch to say it was a controlled flight. In 1885, he invented the world’s first automatic machine gun – the Maxim gun. One day Cantelo’s sons were reading the morning newspaper when an article on Maxim jumped out at them. “That’s father” one said, astonished at the photo of the snowy-haired, bushy-bearded man. 

What’s more, that gun of his – that infernal machine – was the spitting image of Cantelo’s weapon. 

The young men pursued Maxim in an effort to prove his ‘true’ identity. Maxim refused to give them the time of day. This culminated in an attempted ambush at Waterloo station in 1885 when the boys rushed towards him yelling ‘father’. Maxim hurriedly boarded his train. 

There is little to no doubt Cantelo and Maxim were different people. In a world full of snowy-haired, bushy-bearded people, and few cameras, both men did have some photos to compare one another. To my eyes the men look nothing alike, though Cantelo could almost be latter-day, bearded Roger Taylor of Queen in a ‘famous people are all ageless vampires’ meme. There is copious paperwork proving Maxim existed. The man also wrote an autobiography which discusses his earlier life in detail, which led to reporters speaking with people who knew him as a young man. 

What is interesting, perhaps, is the two men almost certainly met. Maxim was in Southampton in the 1870s. He viewed Cantelo’s boat propellers. Cantelo, it was said, was concerned Maxim would steal ideas from him. Also of interest, Maxim knew one thing the Cantelo children didn’t. While he was making guns and planes in the United Kingdom, a man claiming to be Maxim was travelling the USA – trying to sell a gun suspiciously like his Maxim gun to anyone who would see him. Was this William? One tiny piece of evidence located by a web sleuth in our time suggests it could be. The man may have had prior form – A William Cantelo, also of Southampton, faced charges of attempting to pass off counterfeit promissory notes in the mid 1870s. 

So, if Cantelo wasn’t Maxim, and murdered for his gun (a possibility) did he spend the rest of his life travelling the United States perpetrating various confidence tricks? If so we may get a glimpse of what his life might have been like much later in the year when we pick up the story of several other Infernal Machines, and one of history’s most dastardly scoundrels – A mysterious man known to friends as ‘Zed Zed’. 

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