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The Silver Swan: Conservation of the 250-year-old automaton

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Keeping three clockwork motors, a fusee, a mainspring, and other delicate pieces of this Silver Swan automaton in mint condition takes precise work. Skilled clockmaker and conservator Matthew Read leads those efforts in this 2021 Bowes Museum video.

The Silver Swan was smithed by James Cox, a London jeweler and 18th-century entrepreneur, and it first astonished crowds in 1773. But the magic of the life-size bird wouldn’t have been possible without its almost lifelike preening and feeding. From The Bowes Museum:

“The internal mechanism designed by John Joseph Merlin, a famous inventor of the time, is an intricate clock-like mechanism that powers the delicate movements of the swan’s neck. James Cox was so acclaimed after making the Silver Swan, that was asked by the Russian court to create a bespoke automata to adorn their parties. The famous Peacock Clock, now hosted by the Hermitage Museum, was created.“

Silver Swan feathers - close up
Take a closer look at the swan’s chased, repoussΓ© silver feathers and 113 neck rings, as well as its bespoke interior components, as it’s dismantled for cleaning and care. The end of the video showcases the automaton in motion.

Matthew Read and the swan's interior
Accompanied by silver and bronze fish swimming in a flowing stream of 141 glass rods, this meticulously crafted automaton remains the same wonder of engineering and artistry that captivated writer Mark Twain and Josephine and John Bowes in 1867.

silver and bronze fish swim in glass rod waters
“By the time the Bowes bought it from a jeweler’s shop in Paris for 5,000 francs,” the video’s narrator reports, “the Silver Swan was already 100 years old.” Twain wrote:

“I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweler’s shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it…”

The Silver Swan's head
The Bowes Museum’s is celebrating the Silver Swan’s 250th anniversary with a landmark exhibition and a virtual tour: The Magic of the Silver Swan.

The silver swan
Bonus: In the 2017 video below, Matthew Read introduces the clockwork bird’s 18th-century musical component, 12 bells that play eight tunes:


Enjoy these automata videos next:
β€’Β The Peacock Clock at The State Hermitage Museum
β€’Β Mechanical singing bird box automata of the 1700s
β€’Β An Automaton of Marie Antoinette, The Dulcimer Player
β€’ The Writer, a drawing machine automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

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