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The Kid Should See This

The Silver Swan, an 18th century automaton at the Bowes Museum

An automaton like no other in the world, The Silver Swan floats upon a flowing glass stream and catches a beautifully crafted silver fish while its music box plays. The action lasts for around 40 seconds, a daily afternoon highlight from the collection of The Bowes Museum in North East England.

Designed and built around 1773 by inventor John Joseph Merlin, with help from jeweller and goldsmith James Cox, its clockwork insides are wound with a large key. Courtesy of the museum:

The swan is life-size and is controlled by three separate clockwork mechanisms. The Silver Swan rests on a stream made of twisted glass rods interspersed with silver fish. When the mechanism is wound up, the glass rods rotate, the music begins, and the Swan twists its head to the left and right and appears to preen its back. It then appears to sight a fish in the water below and bends down to catch it, which it then swallows as the music stops and it resumes its upright position.

The automaton is presented by Professor Simon Schaffer in the video above, a clip from the BBC’s Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams.

From the same documentary: The Writer, automata by Pierre Jaquet-Droz. Plus: Mechanical singing bird box automata of the 1700s.

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