Mar 112013

Today’s post is intended to redress the dreadful slur against the Belgians, suggesting that the only memorable people to have emanated from that country were the (fictional) Hercule Poirot and the irritating Father Abraham of The Smurfs fame. Actually Father Abraham is the performing name of a Dutchman – Petrus Antonius Laurentius “Pierre” Kartner – and Smurf-fans (I assume there must be some somewhere) should be indebted to a man who styled himself ‘Peyo’ a.k.a. Pierre Culliford: he  actually was Belgian, and I am sure very proud of that fact (even if his father was English….).

I therefore give you – Mr John Joseph Merlin, a splendid fellow and a credit to the nation of his birth. This is his portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. He was born at Huys, near Maastricht, in Belgium on 17 Sept 1735. Google his name and the chances are that it will simply tell you that he invented a form of roller skate and crashed into a mirror when making a spectacular appearance at a soiree, while playing the violin and wearing his skates…(as one does).

The earliest mention of this Grand Entrance appears to come from a work entitled “Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes”written by Thomas Busby in 1805. He relates:

“One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels. Supplied with these and a violin, he mixed in the motley group of one of Mrs Cowley’s masquerades at Carlisle House; 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”

There was however rather more to Mr Merlin than inventing skates-without-brakes. Indeed he is one of my heroes of the century – a man whose accomplishments fitted perfectly into the Georgian era. He was an inventor, a showman, a fine musician, a clock maker and much more besides.

It appears that he studied for six years as a maker of clocks, automata and mathematical and musical instruments at the Académie des Sciences in Paris. He came to the notice of the Court and arrived in England in May 1760, aged twenty-five, as part of the entourage of the ambassador Conde de Fuentes. His connections stood him in good stead. He became a friend of Johann Christian Bach (son of Johann Sebastian Bach). He was a favourite of Thomas Gainsborough. Indeed there is every indication that the portrait shown earlier was executed by the artist in payment for a musical instrument made for him by Merlin – Gainsborough’s papers include an invoice for ten guineas from Merlin dated at around the time the painting was completed.

Charles Burney
by Sir Joshua Reynolds

He was also a popular visitor at the household of the musicologist Charles Burney. In the words of (daughter) Fanny Burney: “He is a great favourite in our house…He is very diverting also in conversation. There is a singular simplicity in his manners. He speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom. He does not, though a foreigner, want words; but he arranges and pronounces them very comically. He is humbly grateful for all civilities that are shown him; but is warmly and honestly resentful for the least slight.”

He set to and developed many refinements to existing musical instruments – to the harp, the harpsichord, the new-fangled pianoforte and so on. He  invented and patented a harpsichord with pianoforte action. By 1763 he appears to have been involved in the preparation and finishing of a large barrel organ for the Princess of Wales (Augusta of Saxe Gotha, widow of Frederick Prince of Wales and mother of George III).

The trade card of James Cox,
copyright, British Museum

By 1766 he had started working with James Cox, the brilliant showman/jeweller/goldsmith. Merlin became Cox’s “chief mechanic” developing  the mechanism for the famous Silver Swan, now the deserved star of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle.

The Bowes Museum Silver Swan










Click here to see the brilliant action as the swan appears to turn its head from side to side before lowering it into the water and swallowing a fish! Obviously no-one told Merlin that swans are vegetarian…

Cox had premises at Spring Gardens near Charing Cross and my ancestor Richard Hall was a frequent visitor. I still have his catalogue, which alone cost half a guinea, on top of the same fee as an admission charge.

Thomas Johann Christian Fischer,
painted by Thomas Gainsborough, 1780

Cox got into financial difficulties and Merlin decided to set up on his own. To begin with he made  automata as well as musical instruments. When the musician Fischer chose to have his portrait painted by Gainsborough he elected to do so leaning against one of Merlin’s pianos. Full size, you can just make out his name on the plate: MERLIN LONDINI FECIT.





He also made clocks and possibly some watches – very few survive.  English Heritage show one of his skeleton clocks at their site. It formed part of the Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood House and I am grateful to them for the image, which is their copyright.

He acquired premises at 11 Princes Street off Hanover Square (just South of Oxford Street). The area is indicated by highlighting on Horwood’s map shown here.

The year was 1783 and he called the place Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. Here he offered refreshments to visitors, with an advertisement stating that ”Ladies and Gentlemen who honour Mr Merlin with their Company may be accommodated with TEA and COFFEE at one Shilling each.” It cost two shillings and sixpence to go in during the morning session (11 until 3) and three shillings per evening session (7 until 9).

What they saw was an impressive array of automata and various inventions made by Merlin. Some I will detail in tomorrow’s post.  ‘At Merlin’s you meet with delight’, ran a contemporary ballad. Suffice to say that one of the people attending the exhibition was a young schoolboy from Devon called Charles Babbage. The story goes that Merlin took Charles upstairs to see his workshop and to show some more exotic automata. Babbage later recalled: ‘There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high’. The first automaton was fairly ordinary, though ‘singularly graceful’, one of Merlin’s well-known stock of figures ‘in brass and clockwork, so as to perform almost every motion and inclination of the human body, viz. the head, the breasts, the neck, the arms, the fingers, the legs etcetera even to the motion of the eyelids, and the lifting up of the hands and fingers to the face’.

Babbage recalled that ‘she used an eye-glass occasionally and bowed frequently as if recognizing her acquaintances’. But it was the other automaton which most impressed Babbage ”an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings and opened its beak’. Babbage was completely gob-smacked. ‘The lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible’.

Fired up by this visit, Babbage was later to go on and invent the forerunner of the modern computer. Indeed in 1834 he actually managed to buy the two exhibits which had so profoundly affected him.

  9 Responses to “John Joseph Merlin – Part One”


    This is fascinating; thank you! Why did he stay in England rather than return to Belgium?


      I suspect that he had achieved considerable success in England, and would have had far fewer opportunities if he had stayed in Belgium. London was a very cosmopolitan city and he clealry fitted in well in London society.


    I hadn’t realised that Merlin was the maker of the famous swan, the Merlin of the age I tend to think of was a very different character, one of the Jacobins in Revolutionary France.


    Fascinating character! Looking forward to reading more about him tomorrow.


    My thanks to Kate Morant for pointing out that in a moment of aberration I had referred to the musician as being Christian Fletcher – instead of Christian Flescher. I have corrected my text as I can assure you that the gentleman featured here has absolutely nothing to do with the Master’s Mate in the Mutiny on the Bounty (1789). Someone shoot the proof-reader!


    […] John Joseph Merlin, Rendell Mike, John Joseph Merlin Part One, Rendell, Mike, John Joseph Merlin Part Two, Schaffer, Simon, […]


    I built my Merlin Band Clock in 1985 by scaling a photograph in a book “The Worlds Great Clocks & Watches” by Cedric Jagger I still have it, it was a challenge with only having one view the clock was running before I could engrave the hidden dial.
    If anyone requires a photo it could be arranged


    Fascinating and informative – thank you. I can’t understand why this man is not more widely known.
    Just one little error in the text – in the section following the map of Hanover Square, the name Babbage is incorrectly spelt as Burbage in the following line.


    An amazing feat mr lea would love a photo as i am building one at the moment.
    andrew mcleish 76 station road marlow bucks sl7 1nx tel no 01628 473140

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