Mar 132013

In yesterday’s post I dealt with some of Merlin’s musical instruments and handy inventions. But what of the other matters which mark him out as different from all the other roller-skating violinists? Today I give you a truly impressive list of other delights which he came up with:

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. This picture of Merlin with his sedan-chair-on-wheels was produced in 1803. Apparently Merlin liked to advertise his chariot by riding it through Hyde Park on Sundays. The picture is shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

A Dutch oven or Rotisseur with a mechanical jack to turn meat (patented 1773).

A bell communication system to summon servants, with a list annexed to the bell push. Moving the pencil down the list led to a corresponding movement on the list in the servants’ quarters in the basement, so that the servant would know without ascending the stairs that his master required Chocolate, Tea or whatever.

A self-propelling wheel chair or ‘Gouty Chair’, propelled and steered by turning winches on the arms. These enabled the disabled user to control the mahogany wheels. This one appeared in Ackermann’s Repository in 1811.

A mechanical garden

A revolving tea table with a central samovar – so that the hostess could depress a foot pedal and turn the table, while another foot pedal operated the tilting of the urn so that it dispensed a set amount of tea into each of 12 cups.

A Hygeian pump to “expel foul air out of Ships Hospitals Bed clothes etc”

A mechanical carousel called “an Aerial Cavalcade” with 4 wooden horses on a structure supported by 6 pillars “on which the Ladies and Gentlemen may ride, perfectly safe, over the heads of the rest of the company”

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).

A prosthetic device for a “Person born with Stumps only” which apparently enabled a person to use a knife and fork, hold a horse reins, “and even write with great freedom”

Also musical instruments: a pianoforte with a six octave span made for Dr Burney in 1775

A personal weighing machine in satinwood called Sanctorius’s Balance. This picture of one appears on the Apter-Fredericks site.

Pendulum of Merlin clock
(showing scale of adjustment).










Various exquisite clocks – this detail of the pendulum shown courtesy of Quality Antique Clocks.

A set of weighing scales with a built-in micrometer screw for measuring the size, thickness and weight of golden guineas (and their divisions, the half guinea and quarter guinea).

Pictured is a photograph of one of the scales which came up for auction a few years back when it was expected to make £1000 ($1500).

(In fact if you look closely at the Gainsborough portrait of Merlin it shows him holding on to one of these scales with his left hand).

A perpetual motion clock – a joint collaboration with James Cox. It wound itself up automatically. The change of pressure in the Earth’s atmosphere acted as an external energy source and caused the winding mechanism to move. This kept the mainspring coiled inside the barrel – with the winding of the mainspring via movement of the liquid in a mercury barometer. So as to provide the required amount of energy, a Fortin mercury barometer was used. It contained an astonishing 68 kilograms (150 pounds) of mercury! Somehow it failed to catch on…



Merlin died at Paddington in May 1803 at the age of 68. In his will he directed that his 30 year old horse should be shot. Having died unmarried, he left his property to two brothers and a sister.

Merlin you old wizard, we salute you!

  11 Responses to “John Joseph Merlin, Part Two”


    What a guy!


      He was indeed. I had never heard of him until I came across his name in conjunction with my earlier post on roller skating but he does seem to have been extraordinarily creative.People like Mr Merlin are what makes the 18th Century so special!


    Amazing fellow! and much more use than Citizen Merlin in Revolutionary France


    Just surfing the net for the Gainsborough portrait of Merlin when I came across your blog. An example of the guinea scale which you mention and picture in your blog is coming up for auction on 11 June in Sworders Stansted Mountfichet saleroom – I think it may be the same example. Really special – rather like its inventor!


    I have heard reference to ‘Merlin’s Swings’ which featured in some English Pleasure gardens in the 18th cent. They sound a bit like swing boats that are found in fairgrounds today but, knowing Merlin, must be more mechanical than being operated by a rope. I would love to find out more about these if anyone knows.

    There is also one of his combined harpsichords and pianos in Munich that has a recording device. A long loop of paper is fed by clockwork past a series of pencils that, as the notes are played, leave traces on the paper. The longer the note the longer the pencil line. I don’t know if any ‘recordings’ survive from the 18th cent though.

    Really enjoyed your great blog about Merlin – thanks.


      Merlin is a hero – a fascinating figure, so I share your invitation for anyone with any information about Merlin’s Swings to get in touch. I am sure that Cynthia Hammond, of Concordia University, would love to know more, especially in the light of her paper given at Bath Spa Uni’s excellent conference on Georgian Pleasures 12th to 13th September 2013.


    Hi Mike!

    Just got your email and read both of your excellent blogs about Merlin – he seems like a truly fascinating character. I was so interested to learn that he invented a “mechanical garden” too. I appreciate your following up with me and will definitely keep you posted if I learn anything more about Mr JJ Merlin!

    Thanks so much,


    I know exactly what a Merlin’s chair was – I found an eye-witness description on line. It was indeed the fore-runner of the swing boat. He had first made them for individuals to use at home, but as far as I can tell, the one at Grosvenor, Bath, was the first one for a pleasure garden.

    The Archimedean principle was that used in Archimedes’ Claw – a device to haul enemy boats out of the water, using his developments of the pulley. If you look at the claw and then at the gadget at the top of swing boats, you can see how Merlin adapted it to allow the people on each side to pull and create a swinging motion.


    Incidentally, the picture everyone uses of Georgian pleasure garden swings and which is labelled Sydney Gardens is in fact Grosvenor. You can see a boat on the river in the background. It can’t be the canal in Sydney Gardens because that was in a cutting. I have stood exactly on the spot the picture represents and if you look carefully at the picture, you can just make out the silhouette of Bathampton Down to the right – this is precisely as it appears today.


    I just happened upon your wonderful history of Mr. Merlin as I was looking up to see if there was anything more recent about him, and particularly about the quip that he roller-skated while playing the violin, with disastrous results. I wrote an article about him (and finding out about him) some years ago–back when finding things out on the web was ever so much more difficult. I am a cellist, and I own a Merlin cello, which I purchased some 15 years ago. You have written a lovely biography/tribute, and packed it with lots of information. After I wrote my article, I heard from someone at the Bowes Museum about the silver swan. I also heard from an amateur cellist whose Merlin cello had been in his family for 90 years. He pointed out that, like my cello, his had a number on it, but from what he had learned, no one had ever figured out Merlin’s numbering system. Thanks for the insights! My article now seems so dated, as much of it was about sleuthing on the web:

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