By Spooky on November 20th, 2023 Category: Tech
Created in 1774 to impress royalty and their guests, the Silver Swan automaton remains an impressively intricate mechanical wonder that continues to captivate audiences.
Built for royalty that ended up changing their minds, the Silver Swan is one of the most famous automatons in history. It was put together at the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, a London jeweler and 18th-century entrepreneur, using an internal mechanism designed by inventor John Joseph Merlin. The chased, repoussé silver body of the swan conceals three clockwork mechanisms that control a music box, a pool of glass with swimming silver fish, and the life-like movements of the majestic bird’s neck and head. Seeing the Silver Swan in action, it’s easy to forget that this mesmerizing mechanical marvel is no less than 250 years old.
Photo: Andrew Curtis / The Silver Swan, Bowes Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0
“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 it 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…’”American novelist Mark Twain once wrote about the Silver Swan.
The solid silver swan weighs between 25 and 30 kilograms (55 – 66 lbs), and has more than 700 components, excluding screws and fixings. It features 99 silver leaves, 113 silver neck rings, and 141 glass rods.
The Silver Swan was the sensation of the 1867 Paris International Exhibition, where its life-like movements and sweat-inducing price tag – 50,000 francs (over $200,000, by today’s money) – left everyone gobsmacked. Five years later, collectors John and Josephine Bowes were able to buy it for a 10th of its original price and add it to their namesake museum.
To this day, the incredible automaton remains the star of the Bowes Museum, but, it is starting to show its age. The Guardian reports that the Silver Swan is in dire need of restoration and is currently more a sculpture than an automaton.
“It does work but when it moves the neck has to be supported,” curator Vicky Sturrs said, adding that the museum is optimistic that it will secure the funding required to repair this incredible piece of old technology.