Those ever so smart comedians are quick to poke fun at famous Belgians, or rather the lack of them – conveniently overlooking the likes of Eddie Merckx, Audrey Hepburn, René Magritte, Hergé and Rubens.
But my own personal favourite Belgian is the inventor, horologist, father of the roller skate and genius in the art of the clockwork automata Jean Joseph Merlin.
Merlin was born in Huy in 1735 and as a young man worked in Paris where he made museum-quality clocks, watches, musical instruments and other delicate mathematical instruments, all of which demonstrated his mechanical genius.
At the age of twenty-five, he moved to London where he opened Merlin’s Mechanical Museum in Hanover Square which became a popular attraction as much as it was a showroom for his mechanical and musical inventions. These included his perpetual motion machine that ran on atmospheric pressure changes, gambling machines, the barrel organ and a sedan-type wheelchair for people with gout.
But as mentioned above, one of his most surprising inventions was the in-line roller skate which he designed as a publicity tool in 1760. They made their first appearance when he skated into a room while playing the violin. Unfortunately, Merlin never really mastered his invention and crashed into a full-length mirror, almost killing himself and smashing his violin in the process.
Marvellous though his inventions were, Merlin’s true genius lay in the creation of exquisite automata which gave full expression to his clock-making skills.
Few of them survive, but one that does is a fine example. Merlin’s Silver Swan was first recorded in 1774 when it was the main attraction used by the showman James Cox. As its name implies, the piece was made entirely from silver and showed a swan feeding on fishes which swam in a shimmering silver stream.
It operated quite happily for almost a century and was seen at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and is described in Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad:
I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it.
The Swan is life-size and is controlled by three separate clockwork mechanisms and sits on a stream made of twisted glass rods interspersed with silver fish.
When the mechanism is wound up, the glass rods rotate, the music begins, and the Swan twists its head to the left and right and appears to preen its back. It then appears to sight a fish in the water below and bends down to catch it, which it then swallows as the music stops and it resumes its upright position.
It was described in 1773 as being 18 feet and it is believed that originally there was a waterfall behind the Swan that was stolen while it was on tour.
The Swan was bought by John and Joséphine Bowes for £200 in 1872 and is now displayed at the Bowes Museum at Castle Barnard in County Durham. Below is a brief video by Malcolm Watt that shows the lasting genius of Jean-Joseph Merlin.