Copy Book Archive

Silver Swan Mark Twain’s attention was drawn off people-watching for a moment by an extraordinarily lifelike machine.
Music: Camille Saint-Saens

© Alden Chadwick, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Source

About this picture …

Bowes Museum in County Durham, home today to the ‘swan’ seen by Mark Twain in 1867. John Bowes acquired the machine in 1872, a century after it was first made, in London, in 1773.

Silver Swan
At the World’s Fair in Paris in 1867, American novelist Mark Twain saw a remarkable ‘automaton’, a silver swan that seemed for all the world like a living thing. But the incorrigible people-watcher could not keep his attention fixed even on that.

OF course we visited the renowned International Exposition. It was a wonderful show, but the moving masses of people of all nations we saw there were a still more wonderful show. I discovered that if I were to stay there a month, I should still find myself looking at the people instead of the inanimate objects on exhibition.

I watched a silver swan, which had a living grace about his movements and a living intelligence in his eyes — watched him swimming about as comfortably and as unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweler's shop — watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through all the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it — but the moment it disappeared down his throat some tattooed South Sea Islanders approached and I yielded to their attractions.


Abridged from ‘Innocents Abroad’ by Mark Twain (1835-1910).

Related Video

The Swan is still in working order, at the Bowes Museum in County Durham. It was made in London in 1773, but the museum’s founder, John Bowes, acquired it from a Paris jeweller in 1872. (The action starts at about 1:10).

Suggested Music

Carnival des Animaux

Le Cygne (The Swan)

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

Played by Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Kathryn Stott (piano).

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IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

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