Ure was trained as a physician but practiced medicine for only three years until he was appointed professor of chemistry and philosophy at Glasgow University. His writing on chemistry, displayed "a fatal facility… for discovering exact mathematical laws in a mass of inaccurate measurements."
In November of 1818, in collaboration with Dr. Jeffray, a professor of anatomy, Ure performed a series of galvanic experiments on the corpse of a freshly-executed criminal named Clydesdale. These experiments took place in the same year that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published. Speculation that Ure was the model for Victor Frankenstein, however, would be anachronistic since the novel was published in March, eight months before the experiments took place and even longer before they were publicized. Nevertheless, Ure's account of his experiments is ghastly and adds a further insight into his eagerness to leap to astonishing (and self-aggrandizing) conclusions based on flimsy evidence:
The subject of these experiments was a middle-sized, athletic, and extremely muscular man, about thirty years of age. He was suspended from the gallows nearly an hour, and made no convulsive struggle after he dropped; while a thief, executed along with him, was violently agitated for a considerable time. He was brought to the anatomical theatre of our university in about ten minutes after he was cut down. His face had a perfectly natural aspect, being neither livid nor tumefied; and there was no dislocation of his neck.What makes this ghoulish, galvanizing episode relevant to Ure's Philosophy of Manufacture is the overarching use in that book of the body as a metaphor for the factory. It is not just any image of a body – an automaton body. Ure described manufacturing as having "three principles of action, or three organic systems: the mechanical, the moral and the commercial, which may not unaptly be compared to the muscular, the nervous, and the sanguiferous systems of an animal." Predictably, the mechanical system corresponds with the interests of the workers and should always be subordinated to the moral constitution," which is to say the factory owner. "The principle of the factory system this is, to substitute mechanical science for hand skill," with the eventual objective of eliminating skilled labor and replacing it with "mere overlookers of machines."
In the judgment of many scientific gentlemen who witnessed the scene, this respiratory experiment was perhaps the most striking ever made with a philosophical apparatus. Let it also be remembered, that for full half an hour before this period, the body had been well nigh drained of its blood, and the spinal marrow severely lacerated. No pulsation could be perceived meanwhile at the heart or wrist; but it may be supposed, that but for the evacuation of the blood,—the essential stimulus of that organ,—this phenomenon might also have occurred.
…by running the wire in my hand along the edges of the last trough, from the 220th to the 270th pair of plates: thus fifty shocks, each greater than the preceding one, were given in two seconds. Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer's face, surpassing far the wildest representations of a Fuseli or a Kean. At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.
In deliberating on the above galvanic phenomena, we are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first, (as I proposed), by electrifying the phrenic nerve, (which may be done without any dangerous incision), there is a probability that life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science.
Ure's ideal, then is for the factory system to perform as a "vast automaton, composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs, acting in uninterrupted concert for the production of a common object, all of them being subordinated to a self-regulated moving force." Ure preceded this image of the automaton factory with three pages of discussion of automatons, including the "chess-player of M. Maelzel" which "imitates very remarkably a living being, endowed with all the resources of intelligence, for executing the combinations of profound study." Ure appears to have been unaware that the chess-player had been frequently suspected of being a hoax. His next paragraph, though, mentions a harpsichord automaton that "was found to contain an infant performer."
Although he mocked Ure as the "Pindar of the automatic factory," Karl Marx borrowed liberally from his imagery, only reversing its political polarity. The following passage from Capital is unmistakably a critical tribute to the central metaphors of Ure's vision:
An organised system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from a central automaton, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, in the place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demon power, at first veiled under the slow and measured motions of his giant limbs, at length breaks out into the fast and furious whirl of his countless working organs [emphasis added].