Laura Gascoigne

The wonders of 18th-century automata

The inventions of John Joseph Merlin, currently showing at the Bowes Museum, include his 'Gouty Chair' and a clockwork-driven spit anticipating the doner kebab

John Joseph Merlin demonstrated many of his own inventions himself, for example, scooting around the Pantheon in his ‘Gouty Chair. Credit: © Florilegus / Bridgeman Images

At the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, Mark Twain was mesmerised by a life-sized silver swan with ‘a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes… swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop’.

The Silver Swan has been its leading attraction, drawing spellbound visitors to its afternoon performances

The jeweller’s shop this mechanical marvel had been born in 100 years earlier was Cox’s Jewelry Museum in London, but its mechanism of 700 components powered by three clockwork motors was the invention of Belgian-born horologist John...

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in