John Joseph Merlin – Inventor

John Joseph Merlin by Thomas Gainsborough, Wikipedia
John Joseph Merlin by Thomas Gainsborough, Wikipedia

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.

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 [sic] or roasting-screen,” a combination harpsichord and piano-forte, and some other unusual creations. However, he gave up patenting things to create scientific toys or contrivances.

Merlin's "Unrivalled Mechanical Chariot", Public Domain
Merlin’s “Unrivalled Mechanical Chariot”, Public Domain

These toys and contrivances he displayed at his own museum, which opened in 1783 as Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. Merlin’s museum was located at No. 11 Princes Street, Hanover Square in London. It was open every day, and Madame d’Arblay 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.]”

One of the most interesting of Merlin’s contrivances was what he called “his 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.” For years, particularly on Saturdays, 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 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.” 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.”

Merlin's Mechanical "Gouty" Chair, Author's Collection
Merlin’s Mechanical “Gouty” Chair, Author’s Collection

Merlin created many other interesting inventions. 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.” 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.”

He also created another interesting piece. It was a mechanical piece with two women, about 15 inches high that 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.”

Prince of Wales, Later George IV, Public Domain
Prince of Wales, Later George IV, Public Domain

Merlin was as eccentric as his inventions and enjoyed appearing in costume at all sorts of places. His costumes were endless, and 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.” 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.” One costume that he frequently donned was an outfit that represented a quack doctor, and it was considered shocking. 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.”

Mrs. Teresa Cornelys, Author's Collection
Mrs. Teresa Cornelys, Author’s Collection

Despite his eccentric inventions and appearances as Vulcan, a bar maid, and 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. 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.”

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 ushered in a roller skating craze that resulted in the opening of roller skating rinks across America and England.

References:

  • English Mechanic and World of Science, Vol. 31, 1880
  • Goede, Christian Augustus Gottlieb, The Stranger in England, Vol. 1, 1807
  • Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, Vol. 1, 1803
  • Notes and Queries, 1899
  • Sandys, William, etal., History of the Violin, 1864

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