Today I want to tell you about Jacques de Vaucanson who was born on this day in 1709 in Grenoble, France. Vaucanson built the first completely automated loom. Before that, he built and exhibited automata. He built a flute player and a pipe and drum player. But the machine that has captured peoples’ imaginations the most was his ‘Digesting Duck’ which I’ll tell you about in a minute.
Vaucanson was the son of a glove maker who, early in life, became fascinated with clocks. His mother was a devout Catholic who used to take him along to church. Whilst she was in the confession booth, young Jacques studied the clock that was there. He memorised it’s mechanism and built one himself at home. He was taught by Jesuits and at eighteen he became a novice in the order of Minims in Lyon. There, he was hoping to pursue his interests in all things mechanical. He was given a grant from a nobleman and set up a workshop in 1727. The same year, there was a visit from the governing heads of the order. Presumably the visit involves some sort of feast because in honour of this, Vaucanson built a number of automata that could serve food and clear the tables. They seemed pleased at first but afterwards declared his work ‘profane’ and ordered his workshop destroyed. Jacques left the order.
After that, he went to Paris where he probably studied anatomy at the Jardins du Roi. He must have made and exhibited other automata in that time, but I couldn’t find out what. He had the idea for his flute player whilst he was ill in bed. He dreamed about the statue of a flute player that was in the Tuileries Gardens and imagined it actually playing a tune. His flute player was first exhibited in 1738. It was life-size and could play twelve different tunes. A flute-playing automaton must have been an incredibly difficult thing to make. He found making the fingers from wood didn’t work as they weren’t flexible enough. So we are told he covered them in skin. We don’t know what sort of skin but probably some of the skills he’d seen his father use came in handy. But it wasn’t just that. To play the flute, his model would have needed to breathe, and in a really controlled way. Inside, it had nine sets of weighted bellows, they were attached to pipes which joined in a kind of throat.
It had lips that moved and a metal tongue that controlled the air-flow.
It sounds amazing and impossibly complicated, but by 1739 interest in it was waning and he built two new figures. His pipe and drum figure could play its pipe faster than any human could hope to. His second piece was a very different project. It was his Digesting Duck. It is considered to be his masterpiece. It was made from gold-plated copper. The wings alone each had over four hundred moving parts. The duck could flap its wings, dabble in water, drink and eat grain. It could also defecate. The drawing on the left shows how the someone imagined the duck’s mechanical digestive system worked. He didn’t have it quite right, as we shall see shortly.
The philosopher Voltaire called Vaucanson the ‘New Prometheus’ long before Mary Shelley subtitled her famous novel ‘The Modern Prometheus’. But he also said of his most famous creation that without the shitting duck there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.
Jacques de Vaucanson got bored with his automata and, in 1741, he packed them off to be exhibited in England by other people. King Louis XV had also loved the duck and offered him a job improving a flagging silk weaving industry. He invented a loom that could weave silk more perfectly than people ever did. It could be operated by one person and used a system of punched cards to make the machine weave different repeated designs. The weavers didn’t like it. They threw stones at him. He responded by building a loom that could be operated by a donkey. It didn’t go down too well and his machine rather fell out of favour. The idea was revived over fifty years later when Joseph-Marie Jacquard built his loom which also used punched cards to weave its designs. The same sort of punched cards were used to input data into early computers.
There are scant mentions of another automaton Vaucanson started work on. He had planned to build one that had muscles and tendons. It would breathe, digest food and have circulating blood. He refers to it as ‘the bleeding man’. He had trouble with the veins and arteries, but when someone brought him a sample of a material called ‘cahuchu’ (rubber) from the Amazon, it seemed like the answer. Not only that, but it led him to believe that his might be able to construct vocal chords. His bleeding man might also speak. I have no idea how far he got with this project and no one knows what became of it.
Meanwhile his earlier automata had set off on an adventure of their own. It’s hard to say exactly what happened to them. There are a few mentions of the flute-player, but the model that is mentioned most often is the duck. A man named Dumoulin seems to have travelled Europe with the models and pawned them in Nuremberg. Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, who I mentioned in connection with Messerschmidt a couple of weeks ago saw them in 1783. They were rescued by a collector called Gottfried Christoph Beireis. They were seen by Goethe in 1805. He said the flute player was in a sorry state and that the duck had lost its feathers and looked like a skeleton. It still ate oats but had lost its powers of digestion.
After Beireis died, the duck and flute player were lost again. The duck was found twenty years later, re-exhibited and then one of its wings broke. It was taken the magician and builder of automata, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who I have also mentioned previously. He was delighted to have such a famous artefact in his workshop. He also discovered the secret of its digestion. He wrote in his memoirs: “To my great surprise, 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 whole digestion thing was a fake. The duck had a secret compartment that was filled with a mixture of breadcrumbs and green dye which was pumped out onto a little silver dish. It had nothing to do with the food that the bird ate.
After that the duck disappeared again and nobody really knows what happened to it. It may have been destroyed in a fire. The picture above may be a photograph of it. It certainly looks like the object that Goethe described.