The Silver Swan Automaton Will Visit London’s Science Museum Next Year

By Andrew Curtis, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
By Andrew Curtis, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons / By Andrew Curtis, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

After nearly 150 years of staying put at England's Bowes Museum, the Silver Swan—a one-of-a-kind, life-sized swan automaton and music box—is about to take flight. Created in 1773 by Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin along with British jeweler James Cox, the mechanism will be on display as part of "Robots," a new exhibition that's opening at London's Science Museum in February, according to Cult of Weird.

The Silver Swan is widely known for its precision craftsmanship, detailed silverwork, and advancements in clockwork gears. When it’s wound up, the music box plays and the river the swan floats on—composed of rotating glass cylinders—begins to stream. The automaton then begins to preen itself, as it moves its head from side to side. The swan later dips its head down to catch and eat one of the small silver fish swimming below. It finally lifts its head again, a fish wriggling in its mouth, as the performance ends after 32 seconds of elegant “dancing.” A waterfall was believed to be positioned behind the Silver Swan at one time, but it was stolen during years of touring.

The automaton gained mass popularity when it was put on display at the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris, France. Mark Twain actually saw the swan in person at that event, the second world's fair, and wrote about the oddity in The Innocents Abroad. According to Twain, the swan “had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes.”

“We are thrilled that the Silver Swan—one of the greatest 18th-century automatons—will be part of our 'Robots' exhibition,” Ben Russell, the Science Museum's lead curator, said. “The Swan is an amazing evocation of life, and makes us reflect on our endless fascination with replicating living things in mechanical form.”

The Silver Swan will make its way to the Science Museum from February 8 to March 23, 2017.

[h/t Cult of Weird]