John Joseph Merlin (1735 – 1803)
One of the underlying themes of this series is the role that luck plays in success – being in the right place at the right time or, in the case of inductees into our illustrious Hall of Fame, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps a shining example of this is the Belgian-born inventor, John Joseph Merlin. Born in Huy, he studied at the Academie des Sciences in Paris where he became well-known for his inventiveness and was persuaded to move to London in 1760.
In London Merlin used his knowledge of automata and the mechanics of clocks to develop a range of innovative toys and musical instruments which he patented. In 1783 he opened in Hanover Square a Mechanical Museum where he displayed many of the toys and objects that he had developed. It was a great success, Madame d’Arblay noting that “Merlin was quite the rage in London where everything was a la Merlin – Merlin chairs” – he had developed a mechanical gouty chair – “Merlin pianos, Merlin swings…Merlin fiddles and Merlin mechanical pegs for violins and violoncellos”.
Merlin was lionised by the great and the good. He was a particular friend of Thomas Gainsborough, who painted a rather splendid portrait, possibly in return for one of Merlin’s mechanical instruments. He was a regular visitor at the house of the musicologist, Charles Burney. His daughter, Fanny, wrote that Merlin was “very diverting in conversation…he speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom”. But showing a little Englander attitude even then, she noted “He does not, though a foreigner, want words but he arranges and pronounces them very comically”.
Another theme that runs through this series is man’s frustrations with the limitations that bipedalism imposes on the ability to get from A to B as quickly as possible. We have seen early attempts to create bicycles, air flight, submarines and the like. Merlin applied his ingenuity to the problem of how to accelerate man’s ability to travel and his light bulb moment was to hit upon the ice skate from which he removed the blade and replaced it with a couple of wheels. Attaching them to the feet he had made, and naturally, patented the first pair of roller skates.
Merlin was a showman and could not resist the opportunity to demonstrate his roller skates at one of the premier events of the 1771 London season, a soiree at the home of Mrs Cowley’s at Carlisle House. For maximum effect, Merlin decided to make his entrance on his roller skates while playing the violin – and why not? What happened next is to be found in Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1805. “when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction” – two major design faults, I feel –“he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”.
Merlin’s dramatic entrance set back the development of the roller skate by nearly 90 years. In 1863 James Plimpton, an American, came up with the idea of a rocking skate with four wheels for stability and independent axles. So successful was Plimpton’s device that roller skating took off. Plimpton’s design is still today.
For inventing the roller skate but putting back its development by nearly a century because of your eccentric demonstration, John Julius Merlin, you are a worthy inductee.
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