Friday, June 28, 2013

An afternoon outing -- Weeks' Mechanical Exhibition

If you were possessed of a free afternoon in London, in the years between 1803 and 1830, an interesting outing could be had by attending at Weeks's Mechanical Exhibition (or Museum) in Tichborne Street near the Haymarket.
from The Literary Gazette 1830
The Exhibition was principally composed of clocks, and the interesting mechanical novelties that had grown from their makers' ingenuity. In the late 18th century, several clockmakers and artisans turned their attention to expanding on the little birds, and moving figures that decorated fine clocks. The mechanical wonders they produced were called 'automata'; if human in form, they were sometimes called 'androides'.
from The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 1823
The illustration above shows two automata which had been displayed a few years previously to this publication: a lady with a horn, which played several tunes, and on the table, a carriage drawn by birds which moved in a natural manner.

Weeks' museum contained, besides his own constructions, the work of eighteenth century mechanics James Cox, and John Merlin, originally from Liege.  They had had their own museums in the late 1700s, and Weeks bought some of their stock as they retired.

In 1819 Richard Rush, American ambassador to London, visited the Weeks' Exhibition, where he was told that the clocks in the display were alone worth 30,000 pounds. Many of the automata had been made for the Chinese market, but trade with the Orient faltered and so Weeks' Museum took shape.

The machines exhibited were by all accounts astonishing. They included: a silver swan..that swam on 'artificial water', life-size musicians, self-opening umbrellas, a caterpillar that fed on the foliage of a golden tree, a ouse made of Oriental pearls, and a 115 piece tarantula. There was also a figure of an old woman who came out of a cottage, on crutches, and walked about in a natural manner.
Literary Gazette 1830
The famed Maillardet had a display of automata in London until 1817. The Two Nerdy History Girls talk about his work here. His pieces included a wonderful "Draughtsman-Writer" which you can read all about here. This incredible machine still produces intricate drawings and poems.

Glimpses of other automata have come down to us. The 'silver dancer' made by John Merlin was seen by Charles Babbage in his youth. Read more here. Weeks bought the dancer in the early 1800s but never displayed it. An 'artificial duck' complete with digestive processes, was built by Vaucauson in the 1700s, among other wonders.

And of course, where there are wonders, there are con artists. In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled his mechanical chess-player, now called "The Turk". It purported to play chess against anyone, and indeed it did, but by means of a person concealed in the desk below it. You can read more about it here.
From the London Encyclopedia 1829
From about 1818 to 1825, The Turk was displayed in England by Johann Malzel.

Weeks' Mechanical Exhibition did not outlast his death in 1834. Most of his treasures were auctioned. The remainder were sold for a pittance at Christie's when his last surviving son died in 1864. The silver swan, however, survived and is now at Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. It still offers an interesting afternoon outing.

'Til next time,

Lesley-Anne

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