Roller skates were invented by a Belgian?


As is often the case, everyone knows the invention, but no one knows the inventor! Yet this Belgian, born in Huy on 17 September 1735, is worth knowing. After a six-year stay in the French capital, where he perfected his skills in watchmaking and mechanics, Merlin moved to London in 1783, to Hanover Square, where he opened Merlin's Mechanical Exhibition, later called Merlin's Mechanical Museum, which quickly became one of the capital's most popular attractions.

Jean-Joseph Merlin was a colourful character, a watchmaker and musical instrument maker, but his real passion was inventing. And he did just that, with his inventions including a harpsichord piano, a rotisserie, a mechanical carriage, a chair for the disabled, a whist game for the blind and bathroom scales.

However, two of his inventions stand out from this creative abundance: one of his automata, the Silver Swan, which is now the centrepiece of the Bowes Museum (England) collections, and roller skates. Roller skates were originally considered toys, and their use was confined to theatrical productions although they were occasionally displayed in exhibitions. Merlin himself probably considered them toys too. Anecdotally, around 1760, he entered a masked ball on a pair of skates and playing the violin but, unable to control his speed, he shattered a mirror worth over £500, smashed his musical instrument to pieces and seriously injured himself. Jean-Joseph Merlin died in London on 4 May 1803, without an heir. His portrait, by Thomas Gainsborough, is reminiscent of the portrayals of personalities from the Age of Enlightenment.