The automatons created by Vaucanson - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

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(Exemple of a replica of the duck automaton created by Vaucanson).

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The French Encyclopaedists described Vaucanson as a demigod and praised him for his remarkable automatons. For the first time, thanks to the genius of the human mind, artificial beings were able, to play a musical instrument perfectly or behave like real living beings.Voltaire even considered Vaucanson as Prometheus' rival :

Bold Vaucanson, Prometheus' rival
Seemed, in an imitation of nature's force
to take fire from heaven to animate bodies.

Jacques de Vaucanson - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

Jacques de Vaucanson


Both a technician and talented watchmaker, Jacques
de Vaucanson made himself famous from England to Russia by his creation of sophisticated androids. He
also created inventions such as the rubber pipe, the weaving loom, the never ending chain…

Born in Grenoble in 1709, Vaucanson quickly revealed his talent by fixing the watches and clock mechanisms
of neighborhood inhabitants. As a real little wizard, he was able to make extremely complex watchmaking
parts at a very young age.

It was in Paris, between 1728 and 1731, that Vaucanson undertook his studies of music, physics, anatomy and mechanics.

At that time, he was in frequent contact with Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, a famous surgeon working in the city of Rouen's general hospital, called "Hôtel Dieu". The young Vaucanson wanted to further develop knowledge in anatomy by making " living anatomies ". Another surgeon, François Quesnay, encouraged him to create artificial creatures in order to put in evidence most of human or animal biological functions.

From 1733, Vaucanson devoted himself to his first android : " The transverse flute player", that he finished four years later. The following year, he opened his exhibition to the public in the reception room of the Hôtel de Longueville in Paris. In spite of an expensive admission ticket, it was a triumph.

Vaucanson informed the Royal Academy of Sciences about his invention through a dissertation. These were the Royal Academy's conclusions :

" The Academy has heard the reading of a dissertation written by M. Jacques de Vaucanson. This dissertation included the description of a wooden statue playing the transverse flute, copied from the marble fauna of Coysevox. Twelve different tunes are played with a precision which merited the public attention, and which many members of the Academy were witnesses to. The Academy has judged that this machine was extremely ingenious; that the creator must have employed simple and new means, both to give the necessary movements to the fingers of this figure and to modify the wind that enters the flute by increasing or diminishing the speed according to the different sounds, by varying the position of the lips, by moving a valve which gives the functions of a tongue, and, at last, by imitating with art all that the human being is obliged to do.

The transverse flute player automaton created by Vaucanson - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

The transverse flute player automaton created by Vaucanson
Flash animation

And in addition to that, M. Jacques de Vaucanson's dissertation had all the clarity and precision of which this machine is capable, which proves both the intelligence of the creator and his extensive knowledge in all the mechanical parts. "

An exhibition leaflet from that period provides additional details : "It is a life-sized man dressed in a savage and who plays eleven tunes on the transverse flute, with movements imitating those of the lips, fingers and breath of a living man."

The Duke of Luynes, chronicler at the Royal Court, wrote in his memoirs : "What makes this machine singular is the fact that the sounds are more or less loud, and that any other flute can replace the one which is being played… Air really blows out through the mouth and the fingers actually play. The fingers are carved in wood with a piece of leather at the point where they cover the holes. The entire figure is made of wood with the exception of the arms which are made of cardboard".

Mechanism of the transverse flute player (automaton created by Vaucanson) - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

The transverse flute player mechanism
(automaton created by Vaucanson)

The android, which was 178 centimeters tall, was seated on a
rock put on a pedestal, like a statue. The case, enclosing a large part of
the weight engine mechanism, housed a wooden cylinder - 56 cm in diameter and 83 cm in length - which turned on its axis. Covered with tiny protrusions, it sent impulses to fifteen levers, which controlled, by means of chains and strings, the output of the air supply, the movements of the lips, the tongue as well as the articulation of the fingers.
The main aim in conceiving the flute player was to study human breathing. In her preface to Vaucanson's dissertation entitled "Mechanism of the automaton flute player " ("Mécanisme du flûteur automate"),Catherine Cardinal, from the Musée National des Techniques, gives us several details about the complex mechanism of fragmentation and modulation of air intensity : "Nine bellows transmitted more or less air to three pipes linked to three little air-reserve chambers situated in the chest of the flute player. It was there that they joined together to form one pipe leading to the mouth of the flute player whose lips permitted more or less air to pass according to their opening. Inside the oral cavity a mobile flap opened or closed the path of the wind. "

Detail of the flute player mechanism (automaton created by vaucanson) - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

Detail of the "flute player" mechanism
(Automaton created by Vaucanson)

Towards the end of the year 1738, the success of the talented musician diminished. Vaucanson thus added two other automatons to the exhibition in order to revive interest in it. And it was successful once again.

The three automatons created by Vaucanson in an itinerant exhibition - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

The three automatons created by Vaucanson
in an itinerant exhibition

The second automaton, also described in the abovementioned leaflet, was a "life-sized man dressed like a Provençal shepherd who could play 20 different tunes on the flute of Provence (also called galoubet) with one hand, and on the tambourin with the other hand with all the precision and perfection of a skillful musician. "

The galoubet and tambourine player. An automatn created by Vaucanson - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

The galoubet and tambourine
player. An automaton created
by Vaucanson

Flash animation

There is very little information on this automaton which stood on its pedestal... Nontheless, it must have been equipped with a very complex mechanism, because it could play two different musical instruments and, according to Vaucanson, the galoubet was the "most unrewarding and inexact instrument that exists." Besides, he made the following note : "A curious discovery about the building of this automaton is that the galoubet is one of the most tiring instruments for the chest because muscles must sometimes make an effort equivalent to 56 pounds…"

The leaflet informs us that the third automaton was not an android but "an artificial duck made of a gilded copper, which is able to drink, eat, quack, dabble in water and digest like a living duck."

Thanks to the open structure of its abdomen, the audience could even follow the digestive process from the throat to the sphincter which ejected a sort of green gruel.

In 1741, Rigollay de Juvigny made the following description of the bird's mechanism : "Everyone was allowed to look inside the pedestal where all the wheels, levers and strings were situated and transmitted the movement through the legs of the animal to all the different parts of its body which were also apparent to the eye. As with the flute player, a weight was the unique power source responsible for all the movement."
Vaucanson provided his own description of his duck after writing his Essay on the mechanism of the flute-playing automaton : "Sir, the new automatons that I intend to exhibit next Easter Monday and to which my flute player will be added, include as n°1 a duck, in which I show the mechanism of the viscera employed in the functions of drinking, eating and
The duck automaton created by Vaucanson - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The duck automaton created by
Vaucanson
Flash animation
digestion; the way in which all the parts required for these actions function together is imitated precisely : the duck extends its neck to take the grain out of thehand, it swallows it, digests it and expels it completely digested through the usual channels; all the movements of the duck, which swallows precipitously and which works its throat still more quickly to pass the food

into its stomach, are copied from nature; the food is digested in the stomach as it is in real animals, by dissolution and not by trituration, as a number of physicists have claimed it; but this is what I intend to demonstrate and show upon that occasion. The material digested in the stomach passes through tubes, as it does through the entrails in the animal, to the anus, where there is a sphincter to allow its release."

" I do not claim that this digestion is a perfect digestion, able to make blood and nourishing particles to nurture the animal; to reproach me for this, I think, would show bad grace. I only claim to imitate the mechanics of this action in three parts which are: firstly, swallowing the grain; secondly, macerating, cooking or dissolving it; thirdly, expelling it in a markedly changed state."

However, the three acts needed means and perhaps these means will deserve some attention from the persons who would demand more accuracy. They will see the expedients that we used to make the artificial duck take the grain, suck it up into its stomach, and there, in a little space, build a chemical laboratory, to break down the main integral parts from it, and make it go out with no limit, through some convolutions of pipes, at an all opposed end of its body."

The duck mechanism attributed to Vaucanson

Flash animation with details

"I do not think that anatomists have nothing to desire about the building of its wings. All the protuberances that they call apophyses, were imitated bone by bone. They are regularly observed like the different joints : the cavities, the curves, the three bones that make up the wing are there very distinct. The first one, which is the humerus, carries out a rotating movement in all directions, with the bone acting as a shoulder blade. The second bone, which is the ulna of the wing, moves with the humerus to which it is united by a joint that anatomists call par-gingline. The third bone

is the radius; it turns in a cavity of the humerus, and its other ends are attached to the little bones of the end of the wing, just like the animal. The inspection of the machine will let oneself know the imitation of nature better than a longer detail, that would look too much like an anatomical explanation."

"Assuredly, the movements of those wings are not similar to those we can see in great masterpieces, such as the Cock of the clocks in Lyons and in Strasbourg. To prove that, the whole mechanism of the artificial duck will be seen exposed, my objective being rather to demonstrate than to simply show a machine. Maybe several ladies, or people who only like the appearance of the animals, would have prefered to see it completely covered; but in addition to the fact that I was asked for it, I am very pleased that it is not pulled the wool over it, and that we can see all the inside piece of work."

"I think that the attentive people will understand the difficulty to make my automaton perform so many different movements; for instance, when it rises up onto its feet, and it steers its neck to the right and to the left. They will know all the changes of the different fulcrums; they will even see that what acted as a fulcrum for a mobile part, becomes then mobile on this part which becomes fixed itself. At last, they will discover an infinity of mechanical combinations."

When the visitors were less numerous, Vaucanson started a triumphant wide tour through France, and then in Italy and England.

Finally, he lost interest in automatons quite quickly because, when he had been appointed General Inspector in silk manufactures in 1741, he had to reorganize the French silk industry. This led him to build numerous machines, as well as perfected tools used for their manufacturing.

However, for nearly 40 years, he worked on the plan to make "an automaton's face which would closely imitate the animal processes by its movements: blood circulation, breathing, digestion, the set of muscles, tendons, nerves, and so far…"

This plan could have succeeded, since he invented the rubberpipe which could have allowed him to make up the circulatory apparatus of his automaton. But alas, he died in 1782.

Today, not much about these automatons has been left, except several photographs on glass plates taken around 1850. The duck burnt in a museum of Nijninovgorod in Russia around 1879. Both musician automatons were lost or destroyed at the beginning of the 19th century.

In his Confidences, Rober-Houdin, a famous magician, technician, and builder of automatons during the Second Empire, explains that he had to restore the duck of Vaucanson in order to be able to show it in 1844 in Paris for the international exhibition.

On this occasion, he made an astounding discovery : " To my amazement, I realized that the illustrious master had not considered that it was worth to resort to a trick that I would have done in case the duck would disappear. The digestion, his automaton's amazing feat which was so pompously announced in his dissertation, was only a myth, at last a real duck. Really, Vaucanson was not only my master of mechanics, I also had to bow in front of his genius for disappearing… The animal was showed a vase in which there were grains bathing in water. The movement that the beak made while dabbling, divided the food and made its insertion into a pipe easier.

One of the rare photos of the duck automaton created by Vaucanson - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

One of the rare photos of the duck automaton created by Vaucanson
Detail of the duck automaton created by Vaucanson - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

Detail of the duck automaton
created by Vaucanson

This pipe was situated under the lower beak of the duck. The water and the grain, then aspirated, fell into a box situated under automaton's stomach, and this box emptied itself every three or four sessions… The discharge was prepared in advance : a sort of gruel composed of green-coloured bread crumb was pushed by a pump-barrel and carefully got on a silver tray like the result of an artificial digestion…"

In his book entitled "The world of the automatons", Alfred Chapuis minimizes the impact of this discovery : "It is known how much the automaton by Vaucanson even at his epoch aroused the emulation of the copyists, and we think that the duck described by the famous conjurer is one of

these copies. It seems to us that the deception denounced by Robert-Houdin was too crude, not worthy of the brilliant inventor's mechanical talents and at last, little in keeping with the description of the functions that he gives. We also know that the extreme wealth of ideas expressed by the author of the "Confidences" took him to say assertions whose accuracy was impossible to control."

It is to be noticed that, since 1998, we can admire a duck able to digest.

The mysterious duck automaton by Frédéric Vidoni.  Mechanical modern automaton created in 1998 - The website of automatons, automata and androids.

The mysterious duck automaton by Frédéric Vidoni
Mechanical modern automaton created in 1998.

Frédéric Vidoni created this automaton that we can see in the Museum of the automatons in Grenoble, in order to pay tribute to Vaucanson.

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