Friday, February 18, 2011

Golden Elephants & Spinning Rubies: More Amazing Automata c. 1770

Friday, February 18, 2011

Susan reporting:

Recently we wrote of the gorgeous swimming Silver Swan, a life-sized 18th c. automaton that has been a popular museum attraction since it was created nearly 250 years ago. A masterpiece of clockwork mechanics as well as the highest level of silver work, the swan was created by John-Joseph Merlin for James Cox's Spring Gardens Museum, a favorite attraction in London from 1774-1782. 

Automata were a special fascination of the Age of Enlightenment. They combined cutting-edge technology, extravagant displays of material wealth (most were made from or plated with gold and silver, and embellished with precious gems), and artful replication of nature in the form of exotic birds and animals. Their movement depended entirely on clockworks; they contain no motors, engines, or batteries. While Cox described himself as a goldsmith, he was more of an entrepreneur, employing hundreds of other skilled craftsmen to produce elaborate luxury pieces like the Silver Swan. While some of these pieces were displayed in the Museum, most were intended for the burgeoning trade with India and the Far East, and as costly diplomatic gifts to faraway emperors. 

Further research by us has revealed than many of these 18th c. marvels from Cox's Museum still do exist, with the largest collection in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The pair of bronze patina elephant clocks featured in the above video, however, remain a sizable (each clock stands approximately ten feet tall!) mystery. While still in excellent condition, their history has been lost, and their present owners have even created a website, hoping that someone can provide more information.

Continuing our elephantine theme, here are videos of two more 18th c. automaton bearing Cox's mark:

Elephant Clock #11

Elephant Clock #8


Unknown said...

Fanny Burney described a visit to Cox's Museum in Evelina,(1778) Letter XIX:

"This disputation was, at last, concluded by Mrs. Mirvan's proposing that we should all go to Cox's Museum. Nobody objected, and carriages were immediately ordered.
In our way down stairs, Madame Duval, in a very passionate manner, said, "Ma foi, if I wouldn't give fifty guineas only to know who gave us that shove!"
This Museum is very astonishing, and very superb; yet if afforded me but little pleasure, for it is a mere show, though a wonderful one.
Sir Clement Willoughby, in our walk round the room, asked me what my opinion was of this brilliant spectacle!
"It is a very fine, and very ingenious," answered I; "and yet-I don't know how it is-but I seem to miss something."
"Excellently answered!" cried he; "you have exactly defined my own feelings, though in a manner I should never have arrived at. But I was certain your taste was too well formed, to be pleased at the expense of your understanding."
"Pardi," cried Madame Duval, "I hope you two is difficult enough! I'm sure if you don't like this you like nothing; for it's the grandest, prettiest, finest sight that ever I see in England."
"What," cried the Captain with a sneer, "I suppose this may be in your French taste? it's like enough, for it's all kickshaw work. But pr'ythee, friend," turning to the person who explained the devices, "will you tell me the use of all this? for I'm not enough of a conjuror to find it out."
"Use, indeed!" repeated Madame Duval, disdainfully; "Lord if every thing's to be useful!-"
"Why, Sir, as to that, Sir," said our conductor, "the ingenuity of the mechanism-the beauty of the workmanship-the-undoubtedly, Sir, any person of taste may easily discern the utility of such extraordinary performances."
"Why then, Sir," answered the Captain, "your person of taste must be either a coxcomb, or a Frenchman; though, for the matter of that, 'tis the same thing."
Just then our attention was attracted by a pine-apple; which, suddenly opening, discovered a nest of birds, which immediately began to sing. "Well," cried Madame Duval, "this is prettier than all the rest! I declare, in all my travels, I never see nothing eleganter."
"Hark ye, friend," said the Captain, "hast never another pine-apple?"
"Because, if thou hast, pr'ythee give it us without the birds; for, d'ye see, I'm no Frenchman, and should relish something more substantial."
This entertainment concluded with a concert of mechanical music: I cannot explain how it was produced, but the effect was pleasing. Madame Duval was in ecstasies; and the Captain flung himself into so many ridiculous distortions, by way of mimicking her, that he engaged the attention of all the company; and, in the midst of the performance of the Coronation Anthem, while Madame Duval was affecting to beat time, and uttering many expressions of delight, he called suddenly for salts, which a lady, apprehending some distress, politely handed to him, and which, instantly applying to the nostrils of poor Madame Duval, she involuntarily snuffed up such a quantity, that the pain and surprise made her scream aloud. When she recovered, she reproached him with her usual vehemence; but he protested he had taken that measure out of pure friendship, as he concluded, from her raptures, that she was going into hysterics. This excuse by no means appeased her, and they had a violent quarrel; but the only effect her anger had on the Captain, was to increase his diversion. Indeed, he laughs and talks so terribly loud in public, that he frequently makes us ashamed of belonging to him"

The museum is also one subject of the discussion of London pleasures in Letter XXIII

Emma J said...

Stunning! I could watch these over and over. Amazing that any of these have survived intact.

Anonymous said...

The craftsmanship and ingenuity of these elaborate gadgets is phenomenal, like gold-plated Rube Goldberg. Wonderful column.

Chris Woodyard said...

The age of the automaton elephant is not past. In 2006 the French street theatre group Royal de Luxe brought "The Sultan's Elephant" to London. This was a 40-foot, 40-ton water-spewing steam-punk elephant with no gold or jewels that I can see. There are several youtube videos on The Sultan's Elephant, one being
There is also a large gallery of photos at Royal de Luxe's website,

Meryll said...

What beautiful & amazing creations.

Richard Foster said...

Here is another elephant automaton for your collection. This one is life-sized and is relatively modern. It was made in England in 1947.

Jenny Carcilliano said...

Thank you for this wonderful article. I teach an accelerated English class for eighth graders. For an upcoming assignment, I'm going to ask my class to read this and imagine a secret past for the pair of elephants. I would say the sky's the limit, but I expect at least one student will send the elephants into space!

Martha said...

You Two Nerdy History Girls are my favorite blog! When I see your column in my inbox I do handstands!

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