John Joseph Merlin – Inventor Extraordinaire

The first recorded skate invention belongs to the inventor John Joseph Merlin, and although the inline skate may be his most famous invention, it was not his only one. Merlin was born 17 September 1735, in Huy, a city five leagues from Maestricht and between Liege and Namur, in Belgium. He eventually moved to Paris where he studied at the Academie des Sciences. While there he became well known for his inventions and was brought to England by the Spanish Ambassador, arriving in England on 24 May 1760, one year before the outlandish Eliza de Feuillide, was born.

John Joseph Merlin by Thomas Gainsborough, Wikipedia

John Joseph Merlin by Thomas Gainsborough. Courtesy of Wikipedia,

Soon after his arrival in England, he acquired the position as head mechanic at Cox’s Museum in Spring Gardens, where he was employed for about thirteen years. He left Cox’s to attain his own patents for such things as a “Rotisseur or roasting-screen,”[1] a combination harpsichord and piano-forte, and some other unusual creations, and because Merlin was also a keyboard builder, his skills in that field were immortalized by his friend Thomas Gainsborough when he “generously painted Merlin’s nameplate on the square piano in the portrait of Johann Christian Fischer, the oboe player who was Gainsborough’s son-in-law.”[2]

Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Johann Christian Fischer. Courtesy of The Royal Trust Collection.

John Joseph Merlin also created many practical inventions, such as the Dutch oven, which he became interested in because it was a fuel-saving device. According to Helen Clifford in Food on the Move:

“[In 1773] he produced a ‘Dutch oven or machine for roasting meat.’ Merlin explained that as well as roasting meat, game and poultry it could double as an oven for baking puddings and as a plate warmer. Merlin stresses exactly the qualities we would expect to find enumerated today; the oven’s saving on fuel, its ability to cook in two-thirds of the usual time, and its reliability. He also point out that its lightness (it was constructed of tin) made it ideal for use in camps or on board ship.”[3]

Although John Joseph Merlin was great at patenting things, he decided to give it up to create scientific toys or contrivances. These items he displayed at his own museum, which opened in 1783 as Merlin’s Mechanical Museum and was located at No. 11 Princes Street, Hanover Square in London. It was open every day, and Madame d’Arblay (also known as Frances Burney) noted that Merlin was “quite ‘the rage’ in London, where everything [was] à la Merlin — Merlin chairs, Merlin pianos, Merlin swings, … [Merlin fiddles, and Merlin mechanical pegs for violins and violoncellos.]”[4] The museum became a popular place to visit as well and his a placed to display many of his mechanical and musical inventions. Guests were also allowed for a few shillings to view the perpetual motion clocks, listen to his music boxes, or sit in his wheeled chairs, as well as gamble on his gambling machine.

Frances Burney. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the most interesting of Merlin’s contrivances was what he called an “unrivalled mechanical chariot.” It was pulled by his favorite horse, a horse Merlin claimed to have had some thirty years, “and to prevent any ill usage of this animal after [its] death, he ordered him … shot, which was done accordingly.”[5] For years, particularly on Saturdays, John Joseph Merlin was seen riding in this chariot throughout London and in Hyde Park. At the front of this chariot was something resembling a dial that was the precursor to our modern odometer. It functioned in an interesting manner, by “mechanical communication from the left wheel to this dial, which he called way wise, … [informing him] by the hand and figures thereupon, how far he had travelled.”[6] Another optional piece of equipment was a novel horse whip that was mechanical and operated when Merlin pulled a string to which the whip was attached. Additionally, Merlin paid eighty guineas to have his chariot decorated and painted with “various emblematical figures of Merlin, the ancient British Magician.”[7]

John Joseph Merlin - "Unrivalled Mechanical Chariot"

Merlin’s “unrivalled mechanical chariot.” Public domain.

John Joseph Merlin created many other interesting inventions besides the chariot. For instance, there was his mechanical “gouty” chair, described as a “masterpiece.” It could easily be converted into “a sopha, an easy chair, & c … and by the addition of two small iron handles easily put upon the elbow, the patient [could] run the vehicle any where at pleasure.”[8] One visitor described some of Merlin’s other inventions:

“He has invented a very ingenious watch, which goes well without wheels, springs or weights … He has contrived chairs, beds, tables, swings … A mechanical garden, with ladies and gentlemen in carriages and on horseback; ponds filled with golden fish; artificial fountains composed of jewels; all in perpetual motion.”[9]

John Joseph Merlin - Mechanical "Gouty" Chair

Merlin’s mechanical “gouty” chair.  Author’s collection.

John Joseph Merlin also created another interesting piece. It was a mechanical piece with two women, about 15 inches high that was claimed to have surpassed all else. One woman was walking and the other dancing. They were created from brass and performed “almost every motion and inclination of the human body; viz. of the head, the beasts, the neck, the arms, the fingers, the legs, &c. even to the motion of the eyelids, and the lifting up of the hands and fingers to the face.”[10]

John Joseph Merlin was as eccentric as his inventions. Apparently he spoke with French-accented English that impressed the ladies, which also caused him to be high demand at parties, as did his outrageous behavior that he would display. He also enjoyed appearing in various costumes, which were endless. Sometimes he would imitate the “character of Vulcan, in forging his own darts, for which he had a fire and a forge, and these he … very successfully aimed against the fair sex.”[11] He also appeared as a bar-maid “where he had a bar of his own fitting up, with all the appendages of glasses … [and] was so much esteemed for his inexhaustible ingenuity in these divertisements, that he was frequently employed by the Prince of Wales, the Margrave of Anspach, the late Marquis of Rockingham, and several of the English nobility.”[12] One costume that he frequently donned was an outfit that represented a quack doctor. He would sit in a mechanical chair, which underneath had installed an electrical apparatus that he would use to shock unwitting patients, and “many [patients] … repented of their temerity in coming to consult him.”[13]

Prince of Wales, Later George IV, Public Domain

Prince of Wales, Later George IV, Public domain.

Despite his eccentric inventions and appearances as Vulcan, a bar maid, or a quack doctor, one of Merlin’s most memorable stunts involved inline skates and a lack of brakes. Although the exact date is unknown, (but suspected to be in February of 1771) he was requested by Mrs. Teresa Cornelys — an opera singer and impresario who hosted fashionable gatherings at Carlisle House in Soho Square — to assist at a masquerade she was giving. John Joseph Merlin put on his skates and began skating while playing his violin. Unfortunately, he “had the misfortune to skate so violently against a large looking-glass … as to break it to pieces.”[14]

Mrs. Teresa Cornelys, Author's Collection

Mrs. Teresa Cornelys. Author’s collection.

His accident discouraged the idea of skating for quite some time, and when he died at the age of 68, on 4 May 1803, it took another sixty years before the quad roller skates — the four-wheeled turning roller skates — were invented. The inventor was James Leonard Plimpton of New York City. His invention in 1863 ushered in a roller skating craze that resulted in the opening of roller skating rinks across America and England.

References:

  • [1] Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, Vol. 1, 1803, p. 274.
  • [2] Palmieri, R., ed., The Piano: An Encyclopedia, p. 232.
  • [3] Walker, Harlin, ed., “Patents for Portability, Cooking Aboard Ship 1650-1850,” in Food on the Move, p. 53.
  • [4] Sandys, William, etal., History of the Violin, 1864, p. 277.
  • [5] Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, p. 276.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 274-275.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 276.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 275.
  • [9] Goede, Christian Augustus Gottlieb, The Stranger in England, Vol. 1, 1807, p. 101, 103.
  • [10] Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, p. 275.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 276.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, p. 277.
  • [14] English Mechanic and World of Science, Vol. 31, 1880, p. 114.

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