INVENTOR: John Joseph Merlin painted by Thomas Gainsborough
INVENTOR: John Joseph Merlin painted by Thomas Gainsborough

In an occasional column, Dorothy Blundell takes a sideways personal look at what goes on behind the scenes at The Bowes Museum where she is a volunteer

MERLIN was a wizard. Not the guy from Arthurian myth, but a chap who was born in Belgium and whose magic consisted of mathematical skill and mechanical precision.
One of the spells he cast – breathing life into the Silver Swan at The Bowes Museum – still works today more than 200 years after his death.
John Joseph Merlin came to London in 1760 when he was 24. Legend soon grew about his genius, helped by rubbing shoulders with influential people of the time, such as Johann Christian Bach (youngest son of JS Bach), Thomas Gainsborough and musicologist Charles Burney and his novelist daughter, Fanny. Merlin cultivated an eccentric public persona but, conversely, was an intensely private man keeping secret his marriage in 1783 and, in his will, referring to his daughter as his “niece”.
He worked for a time for London entrepreneur James Cox who specialised in intricate clockwork curios of gold and silver and encrusted with jewels, which he exported to the Far East, first India and then China, where his “toys” were known as “sing-songs”. It was at Cox’s workshop, in 1773, that Merlin perfected the Silver Swan’s head and neck movements. And when Cox sold up, Merlin set up on his own, with Merlin’s Mechanical Museum charging visitors up to three shillings for admission. What they saw was an impressive array of his automata and various inventions.
The list is long: among examples are a rôtisseur with a mechanical jack to turn meat, a combination harpsichord and piano-forte, a “gouty” chair (wheelchair propelled and steered by the user turning winches on the arms) and a pedal-operated revolving tea table with a robotic 12-cup central samovar for the perfect Georgian hostess. There was also a gambling machine which, once wound up, would play a game of “odd and even” for up to four hours, a set of whist cards for the blind (a sort of braille precursor) and a mechanical hand intended to help a disabled person to write, use a knife and fork and even hold horse reins. There are many more. He took great delight in showing off his inventions, appearing at balls and masquerades in flamboyant costumes to promote his inventions and flatter the ladies. One story, affectionately commemorated in a one-minute clip by BBC’s Horrible Histories team, tells how, even though an invited guest, he literally crashed the party at a swanky Soho Square event.
He arrived wearing his own design of in-line skates while playing his newly-modified, five-string violin. He ended up smashing into an expensive mirror, destroying the instrument and severely injuring himself. Apart from the violin, Merlin developed many refinements to existing instruments – to the harp, the harpsichord, and the new-fangled pianoforte. He invented and patented a harpsichord with pianoforte action. Only three years after arriving in London, he was involved in making a large barrel organ as a gift for George III’s mother. Among other creations was his own version (with Samuel Rehe, an expert maker of barometers) of a perpetual motion clock – one which never needed manually winding as it worked on changes in atmospheric pressure.
Another invention was the beam balance for weighing gold coins. At the time, coins in circulation might have been clipped – made smaller by the edges having been trimmed. Or they were counterfeit, with a high proportion of brass or other alloys, or they had been rubbed smooth through use.
In each case, the holder of the coin was vulnerable to the bank refusing to exchange the coin for its full value. Against this background, Merlin’s handy pocket scales meant the exact size and weight of any gold coin, from the guinea down to the quarter guinea could be very quickly and accurately checked.
He invented a mechanical chariot equipped with a mechanical whip and an early form of odometer called a “way-wise”. The distance covered was shown on a dial at the side of the vehicle.
Merlin liked to ride in it through Hyde Park on Sundays.
After his wife, Ann, died 1793, Merlin kept a low profile for a time, with no new inventions until April 1795. From then on, reports of his public appearances and his inventions mix with reports of ill health. It is thought that Merlin’s last public appearance may have been in January 1803, when he appeared in Hyde Park in a carriage without horses, powered by a windlass (a winch). He died in May 1803 at the age of 68.
His portrait, painted in 1781 by his friend Gainsborough shows him holding a set of his miniature scales. A version of it hangs in the museum facing the Silver Swan. And yet, Merlin is not looking directly out of the painting at the mechanical marvel he helped create. He is gazing off to the right as if in thought. In this way, the artist has conveyed that this great man, whose brain by all accounts fizzed with creativity, is quietly contriving his next trick.
The Bowes Museum is open daily 10am to 5pm to visitors who must book. See