Having recently finished Robert Rankin’s The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, I wondered if the aspect mentioned in the title is based on anything real, or at least some other work of fiction. Turns out that, yes, it’s loosely based on real events. In the nineteenth century, a former Universalist minister named John Murray Spear became interested in Spiritualism, and claimed that he was in contact with an organization of dead people called the Association of Electrizers. He and his followers relocated to Lynn, Massachusetts, where they built a messianic machine called the New Motive Force, which was intended to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. It wasn’t human-shaped like Colonel Katterfelto’s Mechanical Messiah, but rather a mess of zinc batteries, copper wire, steel balls, and magnets.
Spear and his adherents attempted to infuse the machine with consciousness through magical rites, the most significant of which involved a woman identified as the Mary of the New Dispensation (her real name has been lost to history) undergoing ritual childbirth and bestowing maternal affection on the device. All of this failed to actually do anything (or maybe the machine was just stubborn), and by Spear’s own testimony it was eventually destroyed by an angry mob. There’s some doubt as to whether this last bit is true, but even if it isn’t, the mechanical messiah almost certainly no longer exists. A pity, as it would have made a great museum exhibit.
In the book, Katterfelto’s creation of the Mechanical Messiah is based on the writings of a mysterious Herr Doktor, who also wrote a book about teaching English to monkeys. Considering the Lewis Carroll references in the story, I can’t help but wondering if Herr Doktor is the same as Mein Herr from Sylvie and Bruno. Or maybe it has something to do with this blog of steampunk designs, which predates the Rankin book. According to one of the characters, there were a lot of Mechanical Messiahs built after Herr Doktor’s book was published, but none of them worked because they needed to be energized by gold from the planet Venus in order to achieve consciousness. Katterfelto obtains some of this, and the mechanical man comes to life and fights a demon.
The talk of man-made messiahs also made me think of Robot Jesus from Futurama, who’s actually only mentioned in a single episode. In “Futurestock,” a Jewish robot acknowledges that Robot Jesus was built, but that they don’t consider him their Messiah. He’s not to be confused with Zombie Jesus, who was referenced a few times. Of course, Jesus IS a zombie in the twentieth-century sense of the word as simply a reanimated corpse, rather than a person magically enslaved by means of Voodoo. I think the Gospel of John is mostly to blame for this, as that’s where Thomas asks to feel the holes in the resurrected Jesus’ hands. Professor Farnsworth also refers to the Second Coming of Jesus having taken place in 2443, although whether this is regular Jesus, Zombie Jesus, Robot Jesus, or some other Jesus isn’t stated.
I’m kind of surprised there haven’t been more attempts to build a robotic Jesus, or at least none that were as famous as Spear’s.
Unless this Japanese toy counts.
On the other hand, the idea of CLONING Jesus has been tossed around quite a bit over the years. After all, several churches claim to possess relics that Jesus actually touched, so presumably we’d be able to get some of his DNA. In 2000, there was a website called the Second Coming Project that proposed this very thing, but it was intended as a joke.
This was actually a plot device that Rankin used as well, with a mad doctor in The Brentford Chainstore Massacre planning to use the Shroud of Turin to make not just one clone of Jesus, but several. That way every major branch of Christianity could get their own. My Internet friend Mike Leffel also used it in his short-lived web comic Fat Jesus, with the clone not coming out quite right, but still having some of the powers associated with Jesus. Even if we really DID clone Jesus, though, there’s still the issue of nature vs. nurture to contend with, as well as the possibility that his divine powers weren’t totally linked to genetics.