Our destination today is a London party somewhere around 1774 hosted by the genius John Joseph Merlin.
This extraordinary man was talented at creating clockwork devices from a very early age and was plucked from the Academie des Science in Paris aged twenty five by the Spanish Ambassador who decided that the young man’s gift would be better fitted in London.
Merlin threw himself into Georgian society and became part of the new celebrity set. He threw (and attended) the most lavish parties in London, and became part of the fashionable intellectual and artistic set. He spent his time with some of the smartest names of the day, frequently partying all night with the likes of Gainsborough (who painted his portrait) and the son of JS Bach.
His own parties were wild affairs with Merlin frequently arriving dressed as a barmaid and wearing roller skates of his own invention. He would skate (often badly) around the room serving drinks or playing the violin, and once accidentally crashed headlong into a large mirror worth hundreds of pounds and causing himself considerable injury.
At the height of his fame, somewhere early in 1773, Merlin was introduced to a remarkable and inventive jeweller called James Cox, and between them they created one of the most beautiful automata ever built.
The Silver Swan stunned people from the first moment it was revealed and gathered huge crowds to James Cox’s museum in London. People queued for hours, right down the street, just to get a glimpse of the machine. It cost a bit more to attend the sessions where the swan moved, swinging its long elegant neck from side to side before dipping its beak to the water to catch a fish. The swan itself was entirely made of silver, and had twisted glass rods to make the water. The spectacular swan glittered in the candle light as it moved, and looked every bit as if a magician had breathed life into metal.
The young men continued to party but when the money ran out for Cox, Merlin opened his own museum and managed to run it with great success. He continued to design and create more automata including an elaborate carriage mechanism to drive the vehicle without horses, and a pair of cheeky nude automata that were eventually bought by the father of computing, Charles Babbage.
Merlin continued to design automata and to show them at his museum until his death in May 1803 aged 68. He had no children and so left all he had to be split between his two brothers and his sister. He left instructions that his beloved horse, an aged beast said to be thirty years old, should be shot on his death and buried properly.
A last extraordinary moment in an extraordinary life.
The Silver Swan continued to amaze all who saw it, and was eventually purchased by John and Josephine Bowes in 1872 and installed at their home, Barnard Castle. This is where it can be seen today in the Bowes Museum. The swan has always drawn crowds and so impressed Mark Twain that he described it in his book ‘Innocents Abroad’ as a creature that has “a living grace about his movement, and a living intelligence in his eyes”
Very few automata survive from this time, and even less from Merlin, but the Silver Swan is a fragment of this wonderful man and his wild and creative life.
You can see a short video of the Silver Swan here