Cow Catching – Keaton and Babbage and the War Machine

This will be a post about Buster Keaton, Charles Babbage, war, silent cinema, and the machine; oh, and the railway! I’ll build it all up over a few days.

The image is from Buster Keaton’s film The General (1926). Orson Welles once said thatThe General is the greatest comedy film ever made, the greatest train film ever made and possibly the greatest film ever made. That’s high praise indeed, as Welles often tops any list of the greatest film directors ever. Citizen Kane (1941) by Welles, is usually acknowledged as the best film ever.

The General combines Keaton’s famous dead-pan approach to physical comedy with his love of trains. There’s an extended sequence, in the film, of Keaton riding on the cow-catcher at the front of the engine.

You can watch the whole film on the internet and there are many clips from it. There are specialist entries on Keaton and the film too.

The cow-catcher, or railway pilot, was a distinctive feature of wild-west engines. It was designed to deflect bison and cattle that had strayed onto the line. It had two main purposes; the first was to avoid serious injury to the animal and the second was keep the engine moving. So, it was an entirely practical and safety orientated addition to the train.

Obviously and in the context of the great plains of the American mid-west, cattle and livestock were quite a likely to stand on the tracks. This was especially the case when the tracks weren’t fenced off. The cow-catcher implicitly reflected the relative value of cattle, bison and livestock to the economy of the mid-west and to the railroad companies.

In fact, the cow-catcher was invented by Charles Babbage; mathematician, logician and pioneer of computing machines and system design! Babbage was Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University. That’s the same as Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking.

Babbage is best known, nowadays, as a pioneer of mechanical computing. The development of his engines remained largely theoretical during his won lifetime. Babbage was a difficult personality and the close engineering required for his machines was beyond the scope of most of the workshops he sub-contracted. In the end, the absence of agreed standards and specifications for small, but accurately, machined parts proved insurmountable.

Joseph Whitworth eventually proposed a series of “standards” for machining and engineering in the 1840s. The agreement of consistent standards is a characteristic of the organisation of modern life. This is as true in graphic design and typography as in engineering and manufacturing.

The practical difficulties of accurate manufacturing, caused Babbage to reflect upon the logical and most efficient organisation for workshops and factory labour. The consideration of the factory and workshop as a complete system of interactions made Babbage a pioneer of system design. It was natural, in the circumstances, for Babbage to be appointed as a director of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

The Liverpool and Manchester provided the first commercial railway service in the world when it opened in 1830. The opening of railway was also the site of the first railway accident when William Huskisson. MP for Liverpool, was fatally struck by the train. It’s possible that Babbage’s mind turned to safety, and the cow-catcher, or pilot, proposal, as a result of this accident.

Keaton’s film is a romantic comedy where the usual romantic confusion is played out against the chaotic circumstances of the American Civil War. A train engineer is wrongly thought a coward by his fiance. He has to win her back and, in the process, reveals himself to be a brave and selfless hero. His beloved railway engine provides a dynamic and hilarious backdrop for his adventure.

The romantic confusion is based, partly at least, on a misunderstanding of the strategic significance and importance of railway logistics in war. For the Confederate forces, the role of railway engineer was understood as a reserved occupation.

The strategic significance of the railways became quickly evident to the military command. The new machines were both a system of logistic and an engine of war. The railway could provide mobile artillery platforms of a size, and range, hitherto impossible. The railways could also be used to transport men and arms at speed and over great distance. The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the first in which the new theories of mechanised war could be played out.

The story of The General is loosely  based on the history of the war. The Union forces were served by a railway engineer, Herman Haupt, who intuitively understood the military applications of railway logistics and planning. The Confederacy was undermined by its fractured and mis-aligned railway system. After Haupt, there was always an antagonism between railway and military professionals.

The railways were just one element in the industrialisation of war. New mechanical arms were conceived each with greater accuracy and deadlier firepower. The military-industrial complex emerged, during the American Civil War, as a strategic entity and with the railway network as an important part of its supporting infrastructure.

The efficiency gains theorised by Babbage through the co-ordination of the system were evidenced by the very much larger casualties of war thereafter. Daniel Pick and Christian Wolmar, amongst others, have written about all this.

It wasn’t just military mobility that was transformed by the railway. Up to the mechanisation of the military, over half of military logistic capacity was devoted to animal welfare. The reduction in horses allowed for a greater concentration of arms and men. So, the decisive force of military power became much more brutally focussed.

This is the strategy of the machine sentinals in the Matrix.

AJP Taylor took the combination of efficiency and supply to its logical conclusion by suggesting that WW1 was, in fact, a war between the time-tables of military railway deployment. Although Taylor overstates the case, it is certain that military planning, supported by techniques of scientific management and operational research, has tended to see the railway timetable as a form of implacable algorithm of force. The scenario-planning of modern warfare and capital markets is entirely derived from this algorithm.

Helmuth von Moltke, Joseph Joffre and Leon Trotsky were all pioneers of railways. warfare. The brutality of mechanical point-of-attack is expressed visually in El Lissitsky’s Red Wedge poster from 1919.

The American Civil War was also one of the first to be photographed. Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner recorded the American Civil War. The conjunction of military and observational technologies evidenced by these developments provided for an especially brutal evolution of economy, military technology and perception.


de Landa M (1991) War in the Age of Intelligent Machines NYC, Zone

Pick D (1993) War Machine (Rationalisation of Slaughter) New Haven CT, YUP

Schaffer S (1994) Babbage’s Intelligence (Calculating Machines and the Factory System) Critical Inquiry 21

Virilio P (1989) War and Cinema (Logistics of Perception) London, Verso

Wolmar C (2010) Engines of War London, Atlantic

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