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(Exemple of a replica of the duck automaton created by Vaucanson).
This extract is coming from the film "The Jaquet-Droz
This film and many others about automatons and androids
are available in english version on our online
|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
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
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.
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".
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
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)
|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 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
The galoubet and tambourine
player. An automaton created
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
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."
"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
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
Frédéric Vidoni created this automaton that we can see
in the Museum of the automatons in Grenoble, in order to pay tribute to
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
Mechanical modern automaton created in 1998.