Etzler’s Machines, by John Adolphus Etzler (by Robert Antoni)
Robert Antoni’s epic As Flies to Whatless Boys—now available from our website and in bookstores everywhere—is a richly imagined historical novel with a symmetrical structure bookended by and interspersed with archival documents that may or may not be works of the author’s imagination. Antoni’s playful meta-structure includes five archaic symbols linking to five “archival” documents not included in the printed volume. In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing the items here, contextualized by the text they appear with in As Flies to Whatless Boys. Today’s entry is a photo gallery of John Adolphus Etzler’s actual patent drawings for his “Naval Automaton” and “Satellite” machines.
In 1845 London, Etzler has invented machines “powered by the immense forces of Mother Nature” that he thinks will transform the division of labor and free all men. He forms a collective called the Tropical Emigration Society (TES), and recruits a variety of London citizens to take his machines and his misguided ideas to form a proto-socialist, utopian community in the British colony of Trinidad.
Many of Etzler’s activities are chronicled in found articles—some written by the author, Robert Antoni, and some found in the Trinidad and Tobago National Archives. The following article, from the January 07, 1846 edition of the Trinidad Gazette, reports on a test run of the Automaton. The author includes a link to the drawings, which we have reproduced here.
Inventors Narrowly EscapeDrowning in Sea Trial of Naval Automaton
Trinidad Gazette, 7 January 1846
Yesterday afternoon at Maracas Bay a crowd of animated observers, together with a handful of unruly hecklers, gathered beneath the sun in bleachers erected especially for the occasion to witness the much-anticipated sea trial of the Naval Automaton. This contraption, purportedly fuelled and powered by waves alone, was designed to drive a unique craft called a Floating Island. According to the boasts of its inventor, Mr. J.A. Etzler, the resulting craft (Naval Automaton + Floating Island) would be ‘capable of crossing the Atlantic in the cheapest, safest, and most comfortable manner in five days or less.’ It would soon supplant all other outmoded models of ‘hollow’ vessels presently traveling the sea.
The proceedings of the afternoon were met with some delay when a number of the spectators refused to pay the admittance fee of $5 per adult, and $3 per child. As advertised this fee permitted them entrance to the stands, in addition to the privilege of observing the spectacle of the Naval Automaton ‘in full action.’ The fractious individuals congregated on the beach in front of the stands, claiming their entitlement to do so, refusing to move off even when threatened by Mr. Etzler himself. Tempers flared under the hot sun, resulting in a further confrontation between the inventor and the Police Constable, whose opinion favoured the crowd. The situation grew still more volatile when several angry spectators, having paid the admittance fee, demanded their money back. But everything was settled amicably by Mr. Stollmeyer, the inventor’s associate, who removed his leather helmet and passed it amongst the rebellious beach crowd collecting $2 each.
Finally, after a lengthy speech delivered by Mr. Etzler through a large pasteboard cone, in which he recounted the many attributes of his invention, the craft (hidden beneath a tarpaulin at water’s edge) was unveiled to a burst of applause. Derogatory hisses were heard as well, together with a generous amount of laughter, since the advertised ‘futuristic’ craft scarcely looked more novel or sophisticated than the river-raft of a half-tamed Warahoon living up the Orinoko.
The craft’s hull consisted of liana-bound bamboos, with a small carrot-roofed hut (intended to provide shelter in the event of nasty weather) situated towards the rear. At the front of the thatched hut, above its low entrance, a large posterboard sign was affixed containing a seaman’s chart of the Atlantic Ocean. In the lower left corner of this chart our tiny island of Trinidad could be seen, with the somewhat larger isle of Grand Britannia on the upper right, a red line traversing the blue void so as to connect the two, indicating the operators’ course of travel over the next five days.
Behind the hut, attached via rowlock to the stern of the craft, was a wide-bladed oar, presumably the steering mechanism.
Two large paddlewheels could be seen on either side at the front (as though the Warahoon had attempted to convert his river-raft into a crude, pedal-powered paddleboat). Located between these two wheels, at the very centre of the raft, was a wooden box with the letters N-A-V-A-L A-U-T-O-M-A-T-O-N painted across its four visible sides, in addition to the mysterious symbol:
A fiercely toothed iron shaft protruded from the top of this box, projecting fifteen feet into the air, passing through the float’s bottom and extending another three feet below the raft. It was welded to a wide steel platform below the hull (the platform’s size roughly 2/3 the surface area of the raft). This platform was raised into the up position, the craft resting atop it on the sand, with a three-foot gap-space between the platform and the bottom of the raft. Thus the craft seemed to hover slightly in the air above the sand, the only possibly ‘futuristic’ attribute of its appearance.
At the rear of the box was a crank which, in the words of the inventor, ‘serves to lower the platform into the still water beneath the waves’ undulations, so that once the mechanism is engaged, the upward vertical thrust exerted upon the hull will be captured and transferred to the shaft driving the paddlewheels, thus converted into a horizontal propulsion.’
Between the box and the hut sat two tall operator’s stools, fastened to the floor of the raft, complete with seat belts. At the front was a flagpole with a white banner, its purpose to warn slower vessels to take heed and clear out of the way. Dangling from the lower portion of the flagpole was a four-foot-long bunch of green bananas, intended to serve as sustenance for the operators during the five days of their journey.
For the sea trial Mr. Etzler had engaged the assistance of Captain Jerry and his mailboat for the purpose of towing his craft off the sand and into the water, thence out to sea. Mr. Etzler and Mr. Stollmeyer, wearing their leather helmets and safety goggles, strapped themselves onto their pilot stools and gave the thumbs-up signal to Captain Jerry, waiting 50 yards off the beach with a towline attached to the craft. An emotional crowd then watched as the captain engaged his engine. But the steel platform below the hull dug into the sand, preventing it from being dragged off the beach. Captain Jerry applied more power: the platform only dug deeper into the sand. Finally the captain applied full throttle, and amidst a cloud of smoke and an uproar coming from both the crowd and the mailboat’s engine, the craft was yanked with a great splash into the water, the operators fortunate to be wearing their seat belts and safety helmets.
Captain Jerry then backed down his throttle, and he towed the raft slowly out into the calm water of the bay. When the craft met with the first gentle undulations, 100 yards from shore, the thumbs-up signal was again given by the operators, and the craft was turned loose. Those spectators resourceful enough to have brought along their binoculars and lorgnettes, now raised them to their eyes. They watched as Mr. Etzler leant forward on his tall stool to turn the crank and lower the steel platform (now hidden beneath the craft) deeper into the water. Slowly the fiercely toothed shaft became shorter and shorter. When it had disappeared completely, Mr. Etzler threw a lever beside the crank, then he sat upright again on his pilot’s stool. At this point the copilot, Mr. Stollmeyer, took hold of the steering mechanism.
Excited spectators stared through their binoculars and lorgnettes, offering a running commentary. But for the first few minutes the craft, pointed towards the open sea by Mr. Stollmeyer—bow-first into the gentle, oncoming waves—seemed only to drift backwards, rising and falling gently as it floated over the swells. After a few minutes the craft commenced a visible bouncing action on the surface of the water. This motion gradually increased, until the raft appeared to be jumping up and down, sending out large splashes from each of its four sides. Until this point no forward progress had been noted. But no longer did the craft seem to be drifting backwards either. Slowly but surely the paddlewheels began their visible churning, and the bouncing craft seemed to move gradually forward. This continued for fifteen or so anxious minutes, as the craft progressed slowly out to sea, bouncing its way towards the first whitecaps. Even those spectators without binoculars, and those who’d previously derided Mr. Etzler in the foulest language, could now be heard cheering him on.
As it encountered the first white breakers the raft bounced still higher off the surface of the water (whether this was to due to the onrushing waves or the craft’s machinery was unclear). But as the first large waves broke over the bow, and her forward momentum increased, the craft seemed to dig into the water—in great, lunging jolts—driving itself deeper and deeper each time. Suddenly, as it encountered still another tall white crest, the raft disappeared altogether beneath the surface. A moment later the operators strapped to their stools disappeared beneath the water as well, then the pointed tip of the hut’s carrot-roof, last of all the fluttering white banner.
Spectators and hecklers alike could be heard uttering cries of serious concern. They stared through their binoculars at the spot where the craft had gone down.
Eventually, after several stressful minutes, the two operators were seen once more, splashing and flailing about amongst the waves. Captain Jerry immediately turned his mailboat about, making his way towards them. Thus the sea trial was concluded, with Mr. Etzler’s Naval Automaton gone to join the esteemed company of Davy Jones’s locker.
Posted: Sep 11, 2013
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