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It was fascinating to hear how something which had been the meant only for the entertainment of the super rich at one time became democratized through the growth of trade. It was at this point also that the engineers and artisans behind these automata were finally properly acclaimed for their hard and beautiful work.
One of these famous inventors of the time was belgian Jean-Joseph Merlin (although Belgium didn't exist as such back then).
He was born on September 6, 1732 in Huy (close to Liege), and his family moved to Paris when he was nineteen, where he attended the Paris Academy of Sciences. Besides his engineering studies, he also knew how to play several instruments, such as the harpsichord and the violin, and was friends with Johann Christian Bach (son of Johann Sebastian Bach).
After his studies, Merlin's career led him to London--a major city in terms of automata production--where he ended up working with the famous British jeweller and goldsmith James Cox, and where he also opened his own museum (which drew in all sorts of crowds, including a young Charles Babbage).
And it was then, over the span of around 30 years, that Merlin developed and invented his best works: roller skates (fka skaites), the silver swan automaton, the harpsichord-piano, a time-piece powered by changes in atmospheric pressure, and a self-propelled wheelchair, among many others.
Ever the consumate showman, as Merlin's name grew and he was invited to join ever more illustrious groups, so did, apparently, his eccentricities. On one such occasion, he is said to have played the violin while roller skating. But, unable to stop himself, he rolled right into a very expensive mirror, shattering it (along with his violin, and parts of his person).
According to reports, it seems that Merlin's last public appearance was in early 1803, when he drove through Hyde Park in a horseless carriage. He died on May 8, 1803, having lived a full life dedicated to creating beauty and spreading the immeasurable joy he felt for his work to others.
2. The History of Clockwork Machine documentary:
3. Engines of Our Ingenuity No. 630 by John Lienhard, University of Houston