Mechanical Splendours

Inventions by the Jacques de Vaucanson

“Without the duck of Vaucanson, there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.” – VOLTAIRE

Early Years

Jacques de Vaucanson was born in Grenoble, France. He grew up in a poor family, his father was occupied as a glove maker and Jacques himself wanted to become a clockmaker. He was educated by Jesuits but even though he had high interest in religious studies, he always preferred working on mechanical devices. A big influence to Vaucanson depicted the medical surgeon Le Cat, who taught him in anatomy, wherefore it became easier constructing devices that would mimic biological functions.


Jacques de Vaucanson (February 24, 1709 – November 21, 1782) was a French inventor and artist who was responsible for the creation of impressive and innovative automata and machines such as the first completely automated loom.

Clockwork Automata

But Vaucanson was not the first, interested in building automata. Constructions of these kind are known to have exist in the ancient Greece, like the Antikythera mechanism, which was designed to work out astronomical positions. In the 8th century, some wind powered automata were built and polymath Al-Jazari constructed several devices automatically playing music or automatic hand washing devices still in use today (for flush toilets). In the Renaissance, many clockwork automata were designed and built and France depicted the most important area for mechanical toys.

Vaucanson’s Workshop in Lyon

Jacques de Vaucanson opened his first workshop in Lyon at the age of 18 and was therefore at the right location to improve his skills and find sympathizers. His duty in Lyon was to build various machines for a nobleman, but unfortunately, his efforts were not appreciated by everyone. When a group of governmental officials came to the city, he built several androids that would serve dinner and perform other helping tasks through the evening, but after that night his machines were declared foolish and were to be destroyed.

The Flute Player

However, the talented creator of automata Vaucanson continued his work and created the famous biomechanical automation ‘The Flute Player‘. The life-sized figure from 1737 was able to perform twelve songs. For this machine, Vaucanson received at least some kind of recognition. He presented his work to the Académie des Sciences in 1738 where the flute player was considered a toy but still a revolutionary of its kind. Johannes Joachim Quantz, back then court musician and long-time flute instructor to Frederick II of Prussia, discussed the shortcomings of Vaucanson’s mechanical flute player. For instance, he discussed the inability to correctly move the lips which resulted in the necessity of increasing the wind pressure for the upper octaves.

The Digestive Duck

The famous ‘Digesting Duck‘ by Jacques de Vaucanson was unveiled on May 30, 1739 in France and consisted of more than 400 moving parts. The Duck was the size of a living duck, and was cased in gold-plated copper. As well as quacking and muddling water with its bill, it appeared capable of drinking water, and of taking food from its operator’s hand, swallowing it with a gulping action and excreting what appeared to be a digested version of it. The creator himself referred to his device’s interior as a small chemical laboratory which was able to break down the grain. However, while Vaucanson’s duck supposedly demonstrated digestion accurately, his duck actually contained a hidden compartment of pre-“digested” food, so that what the duck defecated was not the same as what it ate. The duck would eat a mixture of water and seed and excrete a mixture of bread crumbs and green dye that appeared to the onlooker indistinguishable from real excrement. The original duck disappears and it is believed that it was destroyed by a fire.

Later Years

In the early 1740’s, Vaucanson started his duties for the French government and created the world’s first automated loom in 1745. Vaucanson designed further machines to automate the textile industry and more machine tools helping production processes, wherefore he became a member of the Académie des Sciences in 1746. Jacques de Vaucanson died in Paris in 1782. The inventor left a collection of his work as a bequest to Louis XVI. The collection would become the foundation of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. His proposals for the automation of the weaving process, although ignored during his lifetime, were later perfected and implemented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, the creator of the Jacquard loom.

Watches, Automatons, ‘Soul,’ And The Digesting Duck Of Jacques de Vaucanson.


People who prefer mechanical watches to quartz sometimes say it is because mechanical watches have “soul” and quartz ones do not. Most of them probably don’t know it, but in saying this, they’re part of a very long tradition of seeing something alive – sometimes, uncannily alive – in a machine, especially one that can operate autonomously. One of the most interesting aspects of the development of machines, and a way in which they’ve been used to explore the relationship between mechanics and life itself, is the history of their use to imitate human or other natural movements. Such machines – which often are closely related to watches and clocks, in that they’re usually driven by mainsprings – have a very long, very rich history.

Generally, they’re known as automatons (automata that imitate humans are sometimes called androids) and they invite a question: to what extent is life itself mechanical? Can machines do more than just imitate movement – can they duplicate life’s more fundamental processes as well? One of the earliest known automatons that attempted to probe the question more deeply was made in the 18th century, and is today remembered by the blunt but evocative name, “The Digesting Duck.”

The Digesting Duck is an example of the extent to which Europe, in the 18th century, became fascinated with the idea that life might be dependent, not on some mysterious vitalizing substance or spiritual principle, but on purely mechanical processes, and one of the greatest practitioners of the art of making simulated life was Jacques de Vaucanson. He was born in 1709, in Grenoble, the tenth son of a poor glove-maker, and took holy orders in early life but found himself badly unsuited to it. Max Byrd, in his essay, “Man as Machine,” writes, “From earliest boyhood, he exhibited both an obsessive hypochondria and a remarkable aptitude for mechanics,” and even as a novice, he is supposed to have begun making automatons – androids – capable of complex and independent movement, which apparently profoundly offended the Church hierarchy. Vaucanson left the religious order he’d joined, and went to Paris, where he studied anatomy and continued to attempt to make machines that duplicated aspects of living organisms – and where he encountered the then-widely discussed Enlightenment idea that life was not spiritual, but mechanical.

Vaucanson learned anatomy from one of the most famous materialists of the era, the surgeon Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, and began working on even more ambitious machines. Le Cat himself had made attempts to construct androids that would have working lungs, and a heart that would pump blood through artificial blood vessels, but lacked the mechanical skills to realize his ideas even partially.

Vaucanson was equal to the task, though – at least, as far as the materials of the time would let him be – and in 1737, he finished the first of three automata that would make him famous. This was called The Flute Player, and unlike many other early music playing automata, it didn’t imitate flute playing – it really played the flute, with mechanical lungs and working fingers, which Byrd says were “possibly covered with human skin.” Vaucanson had an eye for drama – The Flute Player was painted white, and looked like an inanimate marble statue, until it began to move. Another musical automaton created in the same year played the tambourine – The Tambourine Player. But the one that seems to have been most fascinating – then and now – was the Canard Digérateur: The Digesting Duck.

The Digesting Duck did something no one had ever seen before, or at least, appeared to: offered food pellets (grains of oats, for instance)  it would dip its head, consume them, and, a short while later, produce excrement. It also exhibited other actions; Vaucanson wrote, of the Duck, in a letter, “I forgot to tell you, that the Duck drinks, plays in the Water with his Bill, and makes a gurgling noise like a real living Duck . . . in short, I have endeavor’d to make it imitate all the Actions of the living Animal, which I have consider’d very attentively.”

Itis known to us now only from contemporary illustrations (it was shown to the French Academy of Sciences, and the public, in 1738 and created an immediate sensation) and from a few mysterious photographs. The final fate of the duck is unknown, as is the fate of the other two automata. Supposedly, the duck was destroyed by fire in a Krakow museum, in 1879, but in the mid-1930s, according to Byrd, “a conservator (at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris) turned up several photographs of a skeletal bird with wings and springs, sitting on a complex pedestal of gears . . . the photographs are relatively modern and they are marked ‘images of Vaucanson’s duck, received from Dresden,’ but nobody seems to know when they were taken, or by whom.”

The Duck, even before it met its fiery fate, led an interesting life; it was restored to working order in 1844 by a stage magician named Robert-Houdin – the man who invented the mystery clock. It was on this occasion that it was discovered that the Duck did not, in fact, defecate. Robert-Houdin is supposed to have said, “I found that the illustrious master had not been above resorting to a piece of artifice I would happily have incorporated in a conjuring trick!” The duck’s feces were in reality, green-dyed pellets of bread, stored in a hidden compartment, just in front of the automaton’s sphincter ani.

Above is a 18th centuruy illustration of all three of Vaucanson’s most famous automatons. All three have vanished; the last reliable report of all three together is from an account by Goethe, after his visit to their exhibition in 1805. They had by then had become decrepit; Goethe wrote in his diary, “The automatons were utterly paralyzed . . . A duck without feathers stood like a skeleton, still devouring the oats briskly enough, but had lost its powers of digestion.”

Automata continued to be made – one of the most famous was made by the master cabinet maker David Roentgen, appointed ébéniste-mechanicien (cabinet maker and mechanic)to the court of Louis XVI by Marie Antoinette. Roentgen was the creator of one of the most complicated pieces of furniture ever made: the so-called Berlin Secretary Cabinet, which you can see in this video from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (over 13 million views; surely one of the most popular YouTube videos ever uploaded by a major cultural institution).

Collecting automata, if you can find one outside of a museum, is a costly business. You see them at auction but rarely; the above, known as the Magician’s Box, is one of six, and Sotheby’s, for its June 8, 2016, auction, gave an estimate of $1.5 to 2.5 million. Like most automata, however, it’s a depiction of external human activity, not a reproduction of internal biological processes. Vaucanson was after bigger game. One of his biggest fans was Louis XV – the melancholy, introverted, and sickly king who loved clocks, locks, and other machines. Louis was 29 when he saw Vaucanson’s automata, and was instantly intrigued – and asked Vaucanson if it might be possible to make an automaton with a working circulatory system (which perhaps recalled to Vaucanson the ambition of his mentor, Le Cat, to do the same thing). For the rest of his life, Vaucanson attempted to create such an automaton, which he privately called L’homme Saignant: The Bleeding Man. You can’t help but wonder what he might have achieved had he had access to a wider range of materials. Largely, he was restricted to materials familiar to watchmakers – brass and steel springs, rods, pivots and gears, although he was, however, one of the first to experiment with rubber tubing. The whole project was carried out under great secrecy – Vaucanson was funded through a money laundering network, to keep his work hidden from the Church. Alas, like the rest of his work, the Bleeding Man – in whatever state of completion it reached – has been lost.

The Duck, it seems, lives on though – if not as an object, then at least, as an idea.  It has appeared in literature – Thomas Pynchon has it appear in his novel, Mason and Dixon, where it comes to life to attack a chef with its “bec de Mort” (beak of Death).  And, in 1999, a modern automaton maker named Frédéric Vidoni made a reproduction which is on display at the Musée des Automates, in Grenoble.

So if you’ve ever told someone irritably that quartz watches have no soul, while mechanical watches do, you’re part of – whether you know it or not – a much bigger debate than an afternoon Internet argument over whether, say, a quartz Grand Seiko is worth it might make you think – a debate that touches everything from the history of biology, to the mind-brain split proposed by Descartes, to the man who invented the mystery clock. But it might not be a tradition that means quite what you think it means. To Vaucanson, and many of his contemporaries, the body was, as Byrd writes, “no more than an automate itself and might be imitated (or created) by a sufficiently clever mechanic” – soul not required. That biological processes could be duplicated mechanically was evidence that a soul was unnecessary; Descartes famously proposed that animals were indeed simply very complex machines. Modern technology has overtaken Vaucanson, of course – there’s an artist named Wim Delvoye whose 2001 artwork, aptly titled, Cloaca, really does digest and produce feces  – unlike the Digesting Duckwhich only simulated digestion. But the closer we come to Vaucanson’s dream, the harder it is to tell whether we’re proving the necessity of a soul, or proving the opposite. Source 1, Source 2.

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