Restoring The Silver Swan Automaton

A long, skeletal neck of a swan automaton sits on a table. Two men are on either side of it, lowering the swan's body back on.

It’s easier than ever to build your own robot, but humans have been building automatons since before anyone had even thought of electronics. One beautiful example is the Silver Swan, built in the 18th century.

The brainchild of [John Joseph Merlin] and silversmith [James Cox], the swan features three separate clockwork drives, appearing to swim in a moving river where it snatches fish in its motorized beak. Mark Twain said the swan had “a living grace about his movements and living intelligence in his eyes” when he saw it at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1867.

The swan has been delighting people for 250 years, and recently received some much-deserved maintenance. In the video below, you can see museum staff disassembling the swan including its 113 neck rings which protect the three different chain drives controlling its lifelike motions. Hopefully, with some maintenance, this automaton will still be going strong in 2273.

If you’d like to Bring Back the Age of Automatons, perhaps you should study this bird bath or the “Draughtsman-Writer.”

15 thoughts on “Restoring The Silver Swan Automaton

  1. This is the work of brilliant and underappreciated mind. I hope they precisely scanned every piece so that it can be replicated when something finally breaks. It would be a shame for this marvel to ever stop functioning.

  2. My wife and I saw the Swan in action when we were living in North Yorkshire a few years back. The Bowes Museum (w/ lunch at Capri!) is worth a visit if you find yourself between York and Newcastle.

  3. Hello! Thank you so much for highlighting The Bowes Museum’s iconic Silver Swan.

    It’s one of the finest examples of 18th century automata in the world, it has more than 2,000 moving parts (with several thousand in its whole) and three clockwork mechanisms. It is a product of the Enlightenment mind, significant to the international historical, horological and scientific sectors.

    It performed until 2020, when Museum closures and reduced operations due to the pandemic, stopped the Swan’s performances. It is essential that The Bowes Museum completes conservation and restoration, to conserve elements of the Swan’s mechanisms, before it can perform again.

    Following a grant from the National Heritage Lottery fund, the Museum is now a step closer. However, it still needs to raise at least £18,000 to complete this project and enable the Silver Swan to inspire generations of artists, makers, designers and inventors to come!

    As such, the Museum has launched a crowdfunding campaign to Bring Back the Magic!

    Please donate if you can, you could even be in with a reward as a thank-you!,0,0,0,0

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