ah Jack, we hardly knew ye

Before the invention of the rotisserie, a large roast required someone to sit by a fire, engulfed in smoke and heat, to keep the animal turning. So naturally, people devised ways to do this automatically

image of Jack Ruby found here

The least complex and most inexpensive way to turn a roast required little investment, depended on string alone, and involved a semi-manual method. The roast was suspended at the end of a long string attached by its other end above, perhaps from a wrought-iron dangle spit; hanging free it required only the flick of the cook’s hand to set it spinning.


If you were a wealthy soul living over 300 years ago, you had some kind of mechanical utensil to turn a large roast on a spit on the hearth of a large cooking fireplace. Perhaps the oldest and most impressive of these was the clock jack installed on the wall either above the lintel or off to one side-a devise that turned the spit through a system of belts or pulleys.

Clock Jack

The early English word jack referred to the name of a common man who did menial work, or to a contrivance that saved human labor. The jacks (like clocks) incorporated a series of gears and springs to do the work. They were activated by either a key and spring system or by hanging weights. The speed of the spit was regulated by the “governor,” a small weight or a series of fan blades on the jack that slowed the winding down; the weight of the meat on the spit worked the same way.

Governor found here

The source of power for these labor-savers is also interesting. While elaborate mechanical gadgetry had obvious advantages, people of more limited means or needs managed to get by with systems that were at least partially manual. Thus one learns of early dog jacks where the animal itself, running in place on a wide moving belt, set the pulley-gear assembly in motion.

dog power

An Italian version (1827) that turned “130 different roasts at once, and plays twenty-four tunes, and whatever it plays, corresponds to a certain degree of cooking, which is perfectly understood by the cook. Thus, a leg of mutton a la anglaise, will be excellent at the 12th air; a fowl a la Flamande, will be juicy at the 18th, and so on.” Needless to say, only the most opulent, wealthy, or ambitious of kitchens would need one of these.

Jack has long been a popular name for boys. Its meaning is given as “God is Gracious” which might explain what Jack Nicholson is aspiring to in this photograph of his First Communion found here

Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 9:04 am  Comments (43)  
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43 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Put a cat at the end of the treadmill and that dog might move faster.

    • I dare say you’re right bearman. Have you got a spare cat – because I’m not using mine…..

      • Us coyotes don’t like the sound of that dog jack thingy. But we’re totally down with the bearman’s cat mod..

      • P – that video is gorgeous! And a narration by Nick Cave is icing on the cake

  2. So is that where the phrase to ‘Jack Off’ comes from then – the Bible?

    Perhaps I misjudged that popular work of fiction.

    The King

    • doing the rounds are we Your Majesty? I saw you over at tetherdcow’s…. 😉

      • Noblesse oblige…

        The King

  3. Finally, a partial explanation of the string theory I can understand. Is there more to that cartoon?

    • No that’s it. Perfectly encapsulated in one frame

  4. i have ‘pete the meat puppet’ song wedged into my brain. damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!

    • ….but ain’t he sweet?

  5. and Jack or John (more specifically) is where we get the name for citizens of the United States (Yank) from the dutch for John (Jan) The “J” is pronounced with a “Y” sound. It commonly referred to New Englanders, but has expanded muchly since the original usage to refer to seafaring new englanders. And has now as then for the most part a derogatory connotation. YANKEE GO HOME!

    If you dispute this, then my fellows and I will stand stoutly by it–Every Man Jack of us. 😀

    • I don’t dispute it

      • I’m not sure what I think but I do know who I am.

        Jack Often

  6. I wonder what would happen if you replace the dog with a jackal?

    • He’d probably run right off the treadmill and take off with the roast

  7. I wish i could teach my dog to do some manual labour around the house!

    • doesn’t he lick the dishes clean for you?

  8. Roasting has in recent years acquired a new meaning in the UK and even when used in its accepted context tends to provoke much sniggering and innuendo.


    • *snigger*

      • i’m suddenly up for a nice juicy roast. anyone?

  9. Just as well nobody tried a cat treadmill… unless they were fans of slow cooking…

  10. I’m regulated by my own governor. The Governor of Love. And it’s fun to shake hands him with him too.

  11. Oh! I miss my Jack-the-cat!

    • I know you do darlin’ *hugs*

  12. Hahaha that photo of the governor made me lol

    • Me too! And you’re the first to comment on it

  13. Another educational post from Nursemyra. I love how you string seemingly unassociated things together! 🙂

  14. Jack Ruby had quite the posse of babes. Who knew?

  15. omg nursemyra! this was such an entertaining post on many levels..the meat puppet video was a’hem..strange and bizarre. keeping with the theme of your most excellent blog baby!

  16. I want a Pete the Meat Puppet

  17. I can’t believe you put an XKCD comic on your post. I kind of think that’s an ok cartoon overall, but everyone treats it like it’s the worlds greatest webcomic. It’s like you cheated on me or something.

    • oops sorry Michael 😦

  18. I learn more from coming over here than I ever did in school. Now I know where ‘Jack of all trades’ originated and I can finally comprehend string theory. Thank God I don’t have to watch another episode of Big Bang.

  19. I’ll take my burger at the ’10th air.’ Oh, and thanks for reminding me who my governor is.

  20. The Italian roasting method sounds pretty cool.

  21. Love Pete the Meat Puppet, but am puzzled as to how it will make me buy Italian designer denim.

  22. But would they rather jack than Fleetwood Mac?

  23. Hmmm. I have a barbecue but not a rotisserie… Sounds like a weekend project coming up.

  24. I think the dog running in place idea is great. Thank goodness we now have automated ones. I love when it’s used for chicken.

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