Thursday, 2 May 2019

Get Your Skates On!

Here's a fine portrait by Sir Thomas Gainsborough - it is John Joseph Merlin, who lived and worked in London during the time of King George III. His birth name was Jean-Joseph, but he anglicised it when he came to England in 1760, to work as Technical Advisor To The Spanish Ambassador. JJM ought to be on the list of Famous Belgians, but sadly he has been forgotten.
In his time he was known as Mr Merlin, the Ingenious Mechanic.
He invented automata, musical instruments, an odometer [for measuring vehicular speeds] timepieces, mobility aids for the disabled... and in 1760 he invented roller skates.
They were "in-line" skates, the wheels one behind the other. His first attempt was not too successful - invited to a society evening in Soho, he demonstrated his skates whilst simultaneously playing the violin. He careered into a large mirror, smashed it, and did himself serious injury. 
Roller skates were considered to be an eccentric novelty. 
It was a further 90 years before James Plimpton in the USA patented his four-wheel skates in 1863. These were infinitely more popular. 
People suddenly became crazy for this new activity. 
Roller skating rinks were hurriedly built in New York, all over America, and in Britain. This was a sport where men and women could participate and meet socially and young ladies could escape their chaperones and converse with men! "Rinkomania" was the order of the day.
People even sent roller skating Valentine's Day Cards. But this was a very short lived passion. By 1875 there were dozens of rinks in the USA and the UK. By 1800 the great majority had closed, the buildings demolished or repurposed. 
There was a Rink in Norwich which was opened with great fanfare - but closed down three years later. I love this poster, showing that the rink opened "thrice daily" 
Despite having grown up in Norfolk, I knew nothing about Rinkomania till last week. Nor did I know that the building which housed the Norwich Rink is still there, right in the city centre. It's a stone's throw from the Market, Guildhall and City Hall. 
Last Friday Bob and I went and found the Rink. 
Tomorrow I will tell you what we discovered... 
Sadly I cannot roller skate, which is a shame because it appears to be a wonderful activity, although I suspect that 150 years ago it was a little more sedate than this... 


  1. I remember roller skating......would probably break a leg if I did that now though!!

  2. I tried it a couple of times but it wasn't for me. My best friend and her husband had their first date at a roller skating rink - she fell, broker her elbow and didn't hear from him again for six months (he thought she'd never want to speak to him again)! :-)

  3. I can't roller skate, but my daughter used to.


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