Posts Tagged ‘John Joseph Merlin’

A guest post by LH member Mike Rendell. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter of February 2014.

One of the really fascinating characters in Eighteenth Century London was a certain Mr John Joseph Merlin. He was born at Huys, near Maastricht, in Belgium on 17 Sept 1735. If he is known at all, it’s for inventing a form of roller skate and crashing into a mirror when making a spectacular appearance at a soiree. While playing the violin and wearing his skates…(as one does).

The earliest mention of this Grand Entrance appears to come from a work entitled “Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes” written by Thomas Busby in 1805.
He relates:

“One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels. Supplied with these and a violin, he mixed in the motley group of one of Mrs Cowley’s masquerades at Carlisle House; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely.”


John Joseph Merlin by Gainsborough.

There was, however, rather more to Mr Merlin than inventing skates-sans-brakes. Indeed, he is one of my heroes of the century – a man whose accomplishments fitted perfectly into the Georgian era. Merlin was an inventor, a showman, a fine musician, a clock maker and much more besides.

It appears that he studied for six years as a maker of clocks, automata and mathematical and musical instruments at the Académie des Sciences in Paris. He came to the notice of the Court and arrived in England in May 1760, aged twenty-five, as part of a diplomatic entourage. He soon made valuable friends and connections, including Johann Christian Bach, Thomas Gainsborough and many others.

Merlin was also a popular visitor at the household of the musicologist Charles Burney, father of Fanny Burney. She observed: “He is a great favourite in our house…He is very diverting also in conversation. There is a singular simplicity in his manners. He speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom. He does not, though a foreigner, want words; but he arranges and pronounces them very comically.”


Charles Burney by Joshua Reynolds.

He set to and developed many refinements to existing musical instruments – to the harp, the harpsichord, the new-fangled pianoforte and so on. He invented and patented a harpsichord with pianoforte action. By 1763 he appears to have been involved in the preparation and finishing of a large barrel organ as a gift for the mother of George III.

By 1766 he had started working with James Cox, the brilliant showman, jeweller and goldsmith who opened a museum at Spring Gardens at Charing Cross. Merlin became Cox’s “chief mechanic” developing the mechanism for the famous Silver Swan, now the star of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle.
When Cox got into financial difficulties, Merlin decided to set up on his own. In 1783 he acquired premises at 11 Princes Street off Hanover Square and called the place Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. Here he offered refreshments to visitors, charging two shillings and sixpence to go in during the morning session and three shillings in the evening.

What they saw was an impressive array of his automata and various inventions. One of the people attending the exhibition was a young schoolboy from Devon called Charles Babbage. The story goes that Merlin took Charles upstairs to see his workshop and to show some more exotic automata. Babbage later recalled: “There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high”. One of the figures was “an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings and opened its beak”. Babbage was completely gob-smacked. “The lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible”. In 1834 Babbage actually managed to buy the two exhibits which had so profoundly affected him.

He was later to go on and invent the forerunner of the modern computer.

As if inspiring the Father of Computing was not enough, Merlin invented a host of other items:

  • A mechanical chariot equipped with a mechanical whip and an early form of odometer called a “way-wise.” The distance covered was shown on a dial at the side of the vehicle. Apparently Merlin liked to advertise his chariot by riding it through Hyde Park on Sundays.
  • A Dutch oven or Rotisseur with a mechanical jack to turn meat (patented 1773).
  • A bell communication system to summon servants, with a list annexed to the bell push.
  • A ‘Gouty Chair’, propelled and steered by the user turning winches on the arms. 1811.
  • A mechanical garden.
  • A revolving tea table with a robotic 12 cup central samovar for the perfect Georgian hostess.
  • A Hygeian pump to “expel foul air out of Ships Hospitals Bed clothes etc”.
  • A gambling machine which, once wound up, would play a game of ‘odd and even’ for up to four hours!
  • A set of whist cards for the blind (a sort of braille precursor).
  • A prosthetic device for a “Person born with Stumps only” which apparently enabled a person to use a knife and fork, hold a horse reins, “and even write with great freedom”.
  • A personal weighing machine in satinwood called Sanctorius’s Balance.
  • Various exquisite clocks.
  • A set of weighing scales with a built-in micrometer screw for measuring the size, thickness and weight of golden guineas (and their divisions, the half guinea and quarter guinea).
  • A perpetual motion clock (with James Cox). The change of pressure in the Earth’s atmosphere acted as an external energy source and caused the winding mechanism to move. Somehow it failed to catch on…

The Gouty Chair.

Merlin died at Paddington in May 1803 at the age of 68. In his will he directed that his 30 year old horse should be shot – presumably because he could not tolerate the thought of anyone else riding him, or of the horse suffering in old age. Having died unmarried, he left his property to two brothers and a sister.
All in all, a prolific inventor and a fascinating chap.

Merlin you old wizard, I salute you!

Mike Rendell is a founder member and great supporter of London Historians. Also known as the Georgian Gentleman he has written several excellent books about the period and runs a very active blog. He is on Twitter as @georgiangent.


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