FEW PSYCHIATRIC SYMPTOMS are as remarkable as the conviction that one's thoughts and actions are being controlled by some mysterious, malevolent machine. One of the earliest and most colourful examples of such a delusion was reported in the early nineteenth century by John Haslam, apothecary to the Bethlem Hospital in London, arguably the best-known madhouse of all time. Haslam's patient, James Tilly Matthews, claimed that an infernal machine called the Air Loom was controlling his thoughts and subjecting him to countless exquisite tortures. The Loom, which worked by releasing magnetic rays, could insert strange thoughts into his mind, induce specific dreams, or even 'stagnate his circulation, impede his vital motions, and produce instant death'. Over the two centuries since Matthews and Haslam were alive, similar machines have become common in science fiction and in conspiracy theories of all kinds. In Patient Zero this marvellous book, Mike Jay introduces us to the 'Patient Zero' of mind control.
Haslam's account of Matthews's delusions has always been hailed as a classic in textbooks of psychiatry and historians were introduced to the Air Loom by the late Roy Porter, who not only edited a reprint of Haslam's report but wrote with passion, affection and wit about Matthews in his many