Did you know that Jacques de Vaucanson was born today in 1709? He was a French engineer known for his complex automata. An automaton is a machine, a kind of simple robot, that independently follows a set of programmed instructions. His most famous automata were The Flute Player, a life-size shepherd that could play twelve different songs on a drum and flute; and The Digesting Duck, which could flap its wings, drink water, and eat and fully ‘digest’ grain. He also created automated looms that were reviled, but 50 years later would revolutionize the weaving industry.
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Jacques de Vaucanson, grew up poor. He was the tenth child of a glove-maker, but aspired to become a clock maker. For a while he applied himself to religious studies, but was re-inspired to build machines after meeting Le Cat, the surgeon, who taught him about anatomy.
Automaton is singular. Automata or Automatons is plural.
Jacques de Vaucanson’s first automata were influenced by his encounter with Le Cat, the surgeon. The machines modeled biological functions such as breathing, circulation, and digestion.
When he was 18 a nobleman gave him a workshop and asked him to create a set of machines. Jacques de Vaucanson made a set of automata that could serve dinner and then clear the tables. A government official attending the nobleman’s dinner thought that the creations were profane and had Vaucanson’s workshop destroyed.
Each wing of The Digesting Duck had 400 moving parts! Although the duck could ‘eat’ grain, it did not actually digest it. There was a hidden compartment that held a mixture of bread crumbs dyed green that would look like excrement when expelled.
During the process of designing the Duck, de Vaucanson is credited with inventing the world’s first flexible rubber tube. He used the tube to build the intestines of the machine.
None of Jacques de Vaucanson’s creations have survived. When he passed away he left his collection to Louis XVI. The automata were destroyed during the French Revolution.
In 1745, Jacques de Vaucanson actually created the world’s first fully automated loom. He wanted to introduce punch-card technology, but this made him very unpopular. Weavers pelted him with stones in the street and his ideas were ignored. 50 years later, his ideas were refined by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, who created the punch card loom and revolutionized the industry. The idea of ‘punch cards’ was also used in the 20th century to store binary data and programs.