Lurgan's Speaking Clock
By Ken Austin

An early automaton

Could it be that the World's first Speaking Clock was invented in Lurgan? Is it possible that 175 years before Ethel Jane Cain, uttered the immortal words "At the first stroke, the time will be.." an automaton was speaking the time in a back room workshop in Lurgan?

The story first came to light in The Book of County Armagh, a Manual and Directory, by George Henry Bassett in 1888. In a paragraph in the section on Lurgan he writes: "Methodism in Lurgan dates from the period of John Wesley, 1767. It is recorded that he was entertained here by Mr. Miller, father of Joseph Miller, M.D., a man of great inventive genius. At that time he had completed a mechanism in the form of a man, which repeated several sentences in a full and distinct voice. It called the hour, "Past twelve o'clock. O how the time runs on!' to the admiration of Mr. Wesley."

John Wesley (1703 - 1791) was an English cleric, theologian and evangelist who was a leader of a revival movement within the Church of England known as Methodism. The societies he founded became the dominant form of the independent Methodist movement that continues to this day. A key step in the development of Wesley's ministry was to travel and preach outdoors. In contrast to Whitefield's Calvinism, Wesley embraced Arminian doctrines. Moving across Great Britain and Ireland, he helped form and organize small Christian groups that developed intensive and personal accountability, discipleship and religious instruction. He appointed itinerant, unordained evangelists to care for these groups of people. Under Wesley's direction, Methodists became leaders in many social issues of the day, including prison reform and the abolition of slavery. John Wesley visited Ireland on 21 separate occasions between 1747 and 1789, he came to Lurgan in 1756, 1762 and again in 1771.

William Miller, as the rental lists of the time show, was a Landowner, with over 24 acres in Knocknashane and owner of several business in and around Lurgan, operating from a store and yard in Tannaghmore South, approximately where Union Street is today. He was the father of Joseph Miller a well respected doctor in the town.

Rev. John WesleyIn volume five of 'The Journal of Rev. John Wesley AM' he writes on 26 April 1762: "In the evening I preached to a large congregation in the Market House at Lurgan. I now embraced the opportunity, which I had long desired, of talking with Mr Miller, the contriver of that statue which was in Lurgan when I was here before. It was the figure of an old man standing in a case with a curtain drawn before him over against a clock which stood on the other side of the room. Every time the clock struck he opened the door with one hand, drew back the curtain with the other, turned his head as if looking round the company and then said, with a clear, loud articulate voice "past one, two, three" and so on'. But so many came to see this (the like of which all allowed was not to be seen in Europe) that Mr. Miller was in danger of being ruined, not having time to attend to his own business, so, as none offered to purchase it or reward him for his pains, he took the whole machine in pieces, nor has he any thought of ever making anything of the kind again."

Contrary to popular belief the building of Automatons was not ' not to be seen in Europe'. Pierre Jaquet-Droz (born 1721), regarded as one of the most celebrated automata makers of all times, is credited with the invention of the boîte à oiseau chanteur. In the book Le Monde des Automates by Chapuis and Gélis record that between 1770 and 1784 several makers including Jaquet-Droz and Jean-Frédéric Leschot (b. 1746) were making singing bird cages in which the bird song was produced by a miniature pipe-organ requiring a separate pipe for each note. The work to miniaturize the mechanical bird and develop a compact movement using a one and only single pipe of variable pitch was all completed in the year 1784/1785 and this component made possible the reduction in size of the movement and as a consequence giving rise to the birth of the singing bird box.

However, according to the account of John Wesley, this was not some singing bird produced by a miniature pipe-organ. This was an articulate speaking voice. Wesley wrote in his Journal, "I enquired of Mr. Miller, whether he had any thoughts of perfecting his speaking statue which had so long lain by. He said he had altered the design, that he intended, if he had life and strength, to make two, which would not only speak, but sing hymns alternatively with an articulate voice: that he had made a trial and it answered well".

No remains of this miraculous invention has ever been found and the secret of it's construction died with William Miller. Did he find a means of reproducing the human voice centuries before anyone else? The mystery lingers to this very day.

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