One of the reasons that Loretta and I began this blog was to have a place to stash the odd stories and discoveries that we stumbled across while researching our books. Sometimes it will be things that don't have a place in our stories, but are simply too interesting not to share. Sometimes, too, it will be things that if we DID put into a book, our editors might scratch their heads and say (politely) "Uh, maybe not."
The story below is one I'd love to incorporate into a story – I'm just not quite sure how. We've seen the incredible craftsmanship of inventor John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) here on the blog before. An inventor and goldsmith with a gift for mechanical clockwork, he's credited with making this magnificent silver swan, and he exhibited many similar pieces at the popular Merlin's Mechanical Museum in London. His other creations ranged from the prototype of modern wheelchairs to a device to permit the blind to play cards. His imagination was apparently boundless, and in his obituary it was noted that "he hardly ever let a moment slip by unemployed."
He also was a bit of a showman, and delighted in demonstrating his inventions. This, however, could go disastrously awry, as happened one evening when he sported a pair of his latest creation: roller skates. This almost sounds like a scene from a modern out-of-control Hollywood party, not Georgian London:
"Merlin's mind was adequate to the embracing the whole compass of mechanical science and execution; at least, in the articles connected with elegant and domestic amusement. One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on small metallic wheels. Supplied with a pair of these and a violin he mixed in the motley group of one of the celebrated Mrs. Corneily's masquerades at Carlisle-house, Soho Square; 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."
This story comes from Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of Music and Musicians, Ancient and Modern, by Thomas Busby, 1825 – a wonder for history nerds, and all volumes are available as free ebooks via Google.
The print, above, is about sixty years after Merlin's disaster, and clearly the skates have advanced. These jaunty fellows are wearing the "Volito, or Summer Skait" which look a great deal like modern in-line Rollerblades, right down to the rear brake. (As always, click on the image to enlarge it.) While the little poem at the bottom of the print mournfully explains how such skates could save children from falling through the ice and drowning, the splashier use for the skates seems to be helping a miscreant in striped trousers escape justice. Says the officer's assistant: "'Tis no use, master! the fellow has got wings on his heels." Now picture that in a book....
Above: The volito, or, Summer and winter skait: for amusement in cold weather without ice, & is equally useful on stones, boards, &c. London, 1823. From the collection of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Many thanks to fellow-blogger Mike Rendell aka The Georgian Gentleman for first sharing this print with us.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.