Thursday, May 2, 2013

Skating Away, c. 1760 & 1823

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Isabella reporting,

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.


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

So now I have Jethro Tull in my head and my mental image of Merlin is playing a flute! ;-)

Rosi said...

Great stuff. Thanks for the post and the laugh. I needed that.

Joanna said...

I love the silver swan. I have seen it several times(I live in Newcastle upon Tyne) & it never loses its wonder.

John Montague said...

I have just begun following your blog and am thoroughly fascinated by your wide range of historical information, especially for those of us intrigued by the pre-industrial world.
I had the opportunity to meet the two of you at Bacon's Castle last fall and very happy to have seen your blog. Great posts!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Maryanne, I hadn't thought about the Tull connection, but it must have been floating somewhere in my subconscious. Now all morning I've been humming "...on the thin ice of a new day." :)

Rosi, Glad you were amused!

Joanna, You're so fortunate to have seen the Silver Swan in person. I've watched the video more times than I can beautiful & elegant.

John, Thank you for the kind words for the blog. However, you didn't meet us at Bacon's Castle last fall, because neither of us was there. we have impostors lurking out there? :) Perhaps some other time our paths will cross!

John Montague said...

Well, I am embarrassed! I can tell you there were two history "nerds" like me at Bacon's Castle and they bore a striking resemblance to the two women in your photo. Hmmmm, I'm beginning to doubt my memory...comes with age, I guess. They were from Maryland and were self-described "history activists", I do remember that much.
In any case, I'm enjoying your blog.

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