It is difficult to overstate the importance of John Joseph Merlin a true maverick genius of the eighteenth century: His automatons at his Mechanical Museum inspired the schoolboy Charles Babbage to invent the earliest computer, whilst he is perhaps as famous, for the invention of the roller skates. Amongst his musical inventions is a harpsichord capable of annotating the music being played, and he was also keenly involved in applying scientific method to recreating the famed Cremonese tone in violins.
When this instrument was made, violin makers were already expressing interest in understanding the science behind the Classical Cremonese makers. Antonio Bagatella in Padua would publish his “Regole per la costruzione de violini” in 1782, and closer to home, in London, Richard Duke made strong claims about the qualities of his copies of Cremonese masterpieces. If there is any scientific foundation to Merlin’s experiment, it lies within his attempt to recreate the famed Cremonese tone, with the understanding that if violins that emulated Cremonese shapes were unable to replicate tone, a radical exploration of alternative designs could arguably achieve the stated aim. If any credence can be given to this, the violin is a wonderful example of ‘thinking outside of the box’, so whilst it is a failure in it’s stated aims, it may still be an extraordinary testament to the inventive processes of a creative mind that inspired one of the greatest inventions of modern times. It likewise serves as a forerunner to much of the experimentation in violin acoustics that evolved in the early nineteenth century.
As a maker of automata his genius was singular, but he will perhaps be remembered best for the fateful occasion when he smashed into a plate glass mirror of £500 value, as the consequence of demonstrating his new violin designs whilst test-driving his roller-skates (and forgetting to invent the brakes). His swan at Bowes House is unrivalled: