On 23 March 2020 at 11:01 | updated on 28 March 2020 at 10:15

John Joseph Merlin - the first officially recognized inventor of the roller skate

John Joseph Merlin - the first officially recognized inventor of the roller skate

Some say that a rather unknown Dutchman invented the first roller skate. According to rumors he was skating along canals. However, you will not find any traces of him. In contrast to the Belgian John Joseph Merlin who documented his whole invention. He deserves an article...


Biography of John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803)

John Joseph Merlin par Thomas GainsboroughJohn Joseph Merlin was born on 17.09.1935 in Huy (Belgium) and died in London (England) at the age of 68 years. We owe him the first roller skates.

As a young man, he worked in Paris, where he made watches, music boxes, musical instruments and other things that demanded a mathematical precision.

Direction England

In May 1960 he was 25 years old. He left Paris for an invitation to the Royal Academy of Sciences in England. He accompanied the Spanish ambassador Count de Fuentes, with whom he lived for several years in Soho Square. He became director of the Cox Museum at Sprint Gardens on Prince Street. Musical instruments were exhibited at this place. He also produced vending machines. Finally, he opened his own Museum of Mechanics in Hanover Square, Oxford Street. There you can visit his exhibitions and inventions. This place was named "Merlin's cave". Visitors can play there with money machines, watch the clocks and the birdcages, listen to music boxes or drive with the rolling chair for a few shillings.

Merlin's roller skates

His first roller skates had metal wheels. He often wore them to advertise his inventions and his museum. However, the braking and direction changes were somehow problematic and his physical capabilities were insufficient to make up for these deficits. He showed his skates regularly in public without patenting them.

Thomas Busby's Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes (1805) described an unfortunate event by Merlin during a demonstration of his roller skating skills:

"One of his new invention is a shoe on wheels that you can use to move around. Equipped with those shoes and a violin in his hand, he mingled with a colorful disguised group in Carlisle House. Due to the inability to brake or change his direction, he smashed into a very valuable mirror and broke his instrument and suffered serious injuries."

Merlin and his contemporaries

Merlin was one of the "favorites" at Burney's. Fanny Burney described him as a fun and pleasant conversation partner. She also characterized him as someone who can voice his opinion on anyone and everything with the largest franchise. He showed his respect for the courtesy offered to him.

The magic of Merlin goes further than roller skates
Most inventors are known only through one of their inventions, but most of the time, they also try their talent in other areas. John Joseph Merlin was not only known for his roller skates; he also won fame with his music box Cygne d'argent, which he developed together with James Cox. It still works. It can be found in the Bowers Museum at Barnard Castle in England. It was built in 1773. John Bowed sold it in 1872 to a Paris jeweler for 200 pounds!

When the clock was built together, the glass hands turn and the music box plays their music. It gives you the illusion of rippling water. The swan turns his head left and right - notices a fish and tries to catch it (ornithological inexact, because swans do not eat fish). The head of the swan returns to its original position. The movement takes about 40 seconds. To preserve the mechanism, the swan only activates once a day at 2pm.

Merlin also cooperated with Cox to make a clock that was controlled by air pressure.

We also owe following innovations to Merlin:

  • an automobile wheelchair
  • a system to call housekeepers
  • special cards for the blind
  • a pump to drive off used air
  • a rotating tea table
  • a chariot with an odometer
  • a piano with six octaves in 1775, the predecessor of the Broadwood piano with five and a half octaves
  • he improved the harpsichord and created a barrel organ that played 19 songs

The heritage of Merlin

Since Merlin was not married, he bequeathed his possessions to his two brothers and his sister, who lived abroad. The details of his inventions were listed by Richard Altick in "The Show of London" (1978). An engraving showing Merlin and his mechanical chariot was published in Kirby's Wonderfud and Scientific Museum (1803). An engraving of his mechanical wheelchair appeared in Achermann's Repository of arts (1811). The Oil Portrait, painted by Thomas Gainsborrow (pictured below), is exhibited at the Kenwood House, Hampsead. After the painting was rent by an anonymous person in 1973, Kenwood bought the painting back in 1983.


A Wikipedia page dedicated to John Joseph Merlin

Philip H. Highfill; Kalman A. Burnim; Edward A. Langhans (1984). A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800: M'Intosh to Nash. SIU Press. ISBN 978-0-8093-1130-9.

John Jacob; Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood (London, England); GLC Public Relations Branch - edited in London by Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood : Greater London Council, 1985., John Joseph Merlin: the ingenious mechanick

Portrait of Merlin: Thomas Gainsborough
Released  on 23 March 2020 - Read 18838 times

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Passionné de roulettes devant l'éternel, le jour j'écume le bitume. Si je me crashe, si je tombe, ma peau s'arrache mais pas mon coeur de roller !

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