Today, a genius takes pleasure in a world of his
own making. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Here's a Gainsborough
painting. It's a man in his 40s with a fine,
clear-eyed face. He's someone you'd like to know.
But who is he? A second -- miniature -- version of
the painting finally turned up in 1973. It had his
name on it.
He's John Joseph Merlin, a Belgian, born in 1735.
As a young man he worked in Paris as a
mathematical-instrument maker. He made clocks and
other fine machines. Merlin's contemporary James
Watt also started in that trade.
Merlin was a mechanical prodigy. The Spanish
Ambassador to England knew of him. He brought him
to London in 1760. Merlin was soon running with
Johann Christian Bach, Thomas Gainsborough, Samuel
Johnson, and Horace Walpole. This mechanic may have
run in fast company. But his work makes it clear
that his genius was no pretense.
He produced a whole set of museum-quality clocks
and watches. He built a "perpetual motion machine"
that ran on atmospheric-pressure changes. He built
wheelchairs and weighing machines. He invented an
early roller skate. He made robots.
Merlin was a harpsichordist and violinist. His
musical inventions included a barrel organ and
better stringed instruments. He patented a compound
harpsichord. He invented a harpsichord with
pianoforte action. J.C. Bach performed on his
If Merlin is anonymous today, he wasn't so in 1800.
He created Merlin's Mechanical Museum to display
his machines. It was popular for years. One visitor
was a child named Charles
Babbage. Babbage, of course, went on to invent
the forerunner of the modern computer. He told how
he was touched by two robots formed as nude
figurines. He said,
One figure ... glided ... along. ... The other
was [a] danseuse. ... Her eyes were full of
imagination and irresistible.
Merlin had touched Babbage's heart and
head. Years later, Babbage managed to buy those
lovely robots for himself. He liked to run them for
So Merlin mirrored the imagination of the
Industrial Revolution. As his personality emerges
from the shadows, it reveals qualities we've seen
before in the best inventive minds.
His sense of humor is always present. No matter who
wrote about him, they tell of the unadorned
pleasure he gained by creating beauty in the world.
He had a mind larger than life. And the deep joy he
gained from its use was contagious.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
John Joseph Merlin: The Ingenious Mechanick, The
Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, Greater London Council,
1985. (This is a museum catalogue. The authors of the
text are Anne French, Michael Wright, and Frances
The Gentleman's Magazine was a source
for much of the biographical information in the
catalog. Anne French refers to an obituary in May,
1803, and an article by R.S. Kirby in July, 1803.
She indicates other references to Merlin in the
Hyman, A., Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the
Computer. Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1982, pg. 175.
Merlin worked on the so-called "perpetual motion
machine" for a man named Cox. For more on this, see
This fine replica of Merlin's 1776 Band
by Trevor Beatson of Calgary, Canada, won a gold
from the National Association of Watch and Clock
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From the 1897 Encyclopaedia
Forerunner of the modern piano, mid-18th
Episode | Search Episodes |