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Monday, January 17, 2011

Duck Poup

Jacques de Vaucanson (1709 - 1782)
1768 by Joseph Boze
Académie des sciences – Institut de France

"Sans...le canard de Vaucanson vous n'auriez 
rien qui fit ressouvenir de la gloire de la France."
(Without...the duck of Vaucanson, you have nothing 
to remind you of the glory of France.")


It could quack, flap its wings, drink water, eat grain, and poop odiferous pellets.  It was life-size and made of thousands of parts, it had a rubber hose for intestines (the very first rubber hose made), and its outside was gold-plated copper.  The year was 1739, and this mechanical duck, the Canard Digérateur, was an automaton made by Jacques de Vaucanson in France.

Photo of replica by Futoshi Sakauchi

Vaucanson exhibited a mechanical mind when just a boy, and aspired to become a clockmaker.  He was given a workshop and a grant from a nobleman to build machines in Lyon when he was only 18.  He decided to make androids that could serve dinner.  But a government official thought Vaucanson’s work was profane, and ordered his workshop destroyed.

Photo of replica by Futoshi Sakauchi

In 1738, Vaucanson constructed a life-size shepherd that could play twelve songs on the flute.  Since its fingers were not very nimble, he made them of skin.  Its lips could open and close, and move foreward and back.  It had a moving metal tongue that controlled the air flow and paused.  This automaton breathed, thanks to three separate pipes in its chest, attached to nine bellows. 

Postulated interior of the Duck of Vaucanson by an American observer.
 Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Flute Player was exhibited by Vaucanson in shows of ten to fifteen people.  The cost of admission was three livres, which was a week’s wage for manual labor.  The show was very successful.  The next year he introduced two other automata – a figure that played the pipe and drum, and the Duck.  The musician played the pipe faster than a human could.  But the Duck was his masterpiece.  It ate grain from his hand, and one could see gulping action in its throat.

Brochure for the Flute Player
(Public Domain)

Vaucanson grew bored with his creations, sold them in 1743, and went on to invent other things, significantly the first automated loom, which did not make him popular with weavers.  The three automata passed from one owner to the next, and are thought to have been destroyed.  Johann Goethe claimed to have seen the Duck (featherless and broken) and the Flute Player in 1805, but that was the last time the Flute Player was heard of. 

All three of Vaucanson's Automata.
Image courtesy of this site.

The Duck was mentioned about twenty years later when a clockmaker took it to an exposition in Paris in 1844.  The renowned magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, whose name Harry Houdini adopted, examined it and found that the digestion had been the result of two compartments in the Duck – one collected the grains, and the other expelled pellets of dyed green breadcrumbs.  Nothing was heard of the Duck until a letter in a newspaper claimed it was in a museum in Krakow, but the museum had burned down.

Vaucanson died in Paris in 1782, leaving a collection of his work to Louis XVI.  This collection became the foundation of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.  His work on an automated loom was ignored in his lifetime, but was perfected later by Joseph Marie Jacquard, inventor of the Jacquard loom.

Photo courtesy of Peter Schmidt, Department
of English, Swarthmore

There is a replica of the Duck in a private museum open to the public in Grenoble. Le Musée des Automates des Grenoble has a collection of automata, music boxes, and other similar items.  The replica of the Duck that is here was made by a clockmaker. 

Photo courtesy of Peter Schmidt, Department of English, Swarthmore

Mechanical toys were a fad in Europe when Vaucanson introduced his automata.  His creations went way beyond toys, and were quite revolutionary in their sophistication.  Because they mimicked the means of a natural body, with mechanisms that corresponded to muscles and body parts, these were truly “enlightened” designs.


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