A History of Robotics: Vaucanson’s Duck


Historians know that history is not an exploratory study of the past. History is a way of looking at evidence and using it to determine what events took place and why they occurred in the manner that they did. History is not always recorded correctly and many times the most important events are not even recorded at all. History can only be recorded to the preciseness of the technology of the era in which it exists. The accuracy of recorded information is highly evident when exploring stories dating from times of pure oral tradition all the way to the modern era.

Jacques de Vaucanson created several noteworthy automata in Grenoble, France 1738. His first automaton was a flute player that could play twelve songs. Shortly after creating the flute player Vaucanson constructed others which had abilities such as one which played a flute and another a tambourine or drum. In 1739 Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck which was presented before King Louis XV. Vaucanson's had a vision he called "moving anatomy", which was his idea of modeling human or animal anatomy with mechanics. The duck moved, quacked, flapped it's wings and even ate and digested food. The food that the duck ate was chemically digested and then excreted, modeling the digestive functionality of a real duck.

It became discovered however, that the duck was a complete fraud. It had been designed with a mechanical chamber which produced predigested pellets to provide the appearance that it had consumed and digested the material it was given. Although the duck was not a real demonstration of what Vaucanson sought to create, it does not decrease the significance of his ideas. The duck itself was an engineering marvel with over over 400 parts were in each of the wings alone and carefully weighted parts to ensure that it moved just like a real duck.

This post is part of a series titled The History of Robotics. Each chapter is a year or era in robotics history. To see more check for posts labeled history or use the link bellow to view the next era.
Previous chapter: Water Clocks
Next chapter: Da Vinci's Knight

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