Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Amazing John Joseph Merlin

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
John Joseph Merlin
Loretta reports:

When I found the Ackermann plate of Merlin’s Mechanical Chair, historical nerdiness compelled me to find out who "Merlin" was.  Funnily enough, the Wikipedia entry led me back to Two Nerdy History Girls, and Isabella/Susan’s Friday Video of John Joseph Merlin’s extraordinary swan.

Since there are quite a few articles and biographies online (here, here,and here), I’m going to offer some of the high points from Richard D. Altick’s less easily accessible The Shows of London.

About 1774-75 Merlin patented a combination harpsichord and pianoforte, and soon thereafter created a six-octave pianoforte (some years before Broadwood introduced his 5½ octave span instrument).  Merlin created “a barrel organ-harpsichord capable of playing nineteen tunes, a one-man orchestra,” and many other musical devices.  He created a tea table the hostess could make revolve via a foot pedal, to bring each cup to her in turn.  He made a bell device to let servants know what the master wanted at a given time.  In Hyde Park he drove a “mechanical chariot” [pictured below] whose equipment included a mechanical whip and an 18th C version of an odometer (the latter actually a 17th C invention).  He created a type of roller skate—but having failed to provide brakes, he crashed into a mirror. 

“Still other exhibits [at Merlin’s Mechanical Museum] were a gambling machine ... a set of whist cards for the blind, which may well have been an anticipation of the Braille system; the bust of a Turk which chewed and swallowed an artificial stone, and an ‘Aerial Cavalcade,’ four wooden horses on a structure supported by six pillars, ‘on which the Ladies and Gentlemen may ride, perfectly safe, over the heads of the rest of the company.’  This last was unquestionably an early carousel, complete with brass rings.”
John Joseph Merlin & his mechanical chariot

The mechanical chair was one of several devices he invented for the use of ill and handicapped people. For example, King George III might have endured physician abuse, but he did enjoy one of the mechanical chairs.  The following quotation appears in numerous early 19th century books and periodicals: “One of Merlin’s chairs was at this time provided for him, with which he was so pleased, that he was constantly removed from one room to another in it.”
Dodsley's Annual Register for 1820.

One more interesting tidbit from Altick:  Merlin, a Belgian, had an extensive English vocabulary, but often put the words in the wrong order and “had an unerring habit of stressing the wrong syllable.”

Portrait of Jean-Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) from Belgium; mechanical engineer, inventor of the roller-skate and designer and maker of various musical instruments, clocks and other mechanical constructions, by Thomas Gainsborough (1782) from Kenwood House collection.

Merlin and his carriage from Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum (1803) aka Kirby's Wonderful and Scientific Museum.


Lillian Marek said...

I love Mr. Merlin! Isn't it amazing how many intresting people there are in the world as soon as you start to look?

Joanna said...

I love the swan, it's not from where I live, I have taken several visitors and everyone has loved it.

Joanna said...

My above comment missing a word which alters the sense. The swan is not far from my home.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Mary, Countess of Chatham, was plagued with health issues that had left her lame, and relied on one of Merlin's mechanical chairs in the late 18th c. Here's a link to an interesting blog about her and her medical trials:


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