on Jacques de Vaucanson and his Duck

(not to mention the flute-player and other Automata)

"A rival to Prometheus, [Vaucanson] seemed to steal the heavenly fires in his search to give life." --Voltaire
Jacques de Vaucanson was born in Grenoble, France, on 24 February 1709, the son of a glove-maker.

After studying at the Jesuit school in Grenoble (now Lycée Stendhal), he took orders and joined Les Ordre des Minimes, to which the building that now houses the Musée Dauphinois in Grenoble once belonged). Early in 1738, in response to the eighteenth-century craze for animated objects, Vaucanson presented his first complete automaton, "The Flute Player," at the Academie des Sciences. A year later, he produced "The Tambourine Player" and "The Duck."

The first of these robots was a life-size figure capable of playing a flute; it had a repertoire of twelve pieces, including "Le Rossignol" (The Nightingale) by Blavet.

Vaucanson's most famous creation was undoubtedly "The Duck." This mechanical beast could flap its wings, eat, and digest grain. Each wing contained over four hundred moving parts and even today it remains something of a mystery. The original Duck has disappeared.
In Grenoble, Vaucanson's memory lives on in a curious little museum that is open to the public: Le Musée des Automates des Grenoble, "Reves Mecaniques." The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Lara, will give you a tour of the collection, a remarkable grouping of automata, music boxes, whistling birds, and other objects. Of particular interest is a replica of Vaucanson's famous duck made by a clock-maker from Chambery. See illustration below, Hommage à Vaucanson, from a postcard available at the museum. 12 rue des Arts Grenouble 38000 phone: 04 76 43 33 33
On the back of the postcard:

"Anas Mechanica Arcana": Les mystérieux canard mécanique.

"Creation exclusive et originale, F. Vidoni"

Check out the complex tubing making the Duck's stomach and intenstines!

In 1741 Vaucanson was appointed inspector of silk manufacture. He set about reorganizing the entire industry in France from top to bottom; it was in considerable difficulty at the time due to foreign competition, especially in England and Scotland.

Vaucanson introduced far-reaching changes in working methods, in all areas from production to delivery. He improved on existing machines and started using punch cards to automate weaving.

At the time, these changes were not well received and due to the hostilit of weavers they were largely ignored. The techniques Vaucanson invented were subsequently perfected by Jacquard the father of modern looms and a remote ancestor (because of the punch cards) of today's computer revolution.

Towards the end of his life Vaucanson became a member of the Academie des Sciences. He died in Paris in 1782.


to Mason & Dixon essay,

further readings topics

---Much of the information above is quoted and paraphrased from an anonymous article on Vaucanson in The Anglophones magazine, January/February 1999: 22-23.

This article and the postcard above were courteously sent to me by a former student of mine, John Rieffel, Swarthmore '99, a poet and ex-circus clown who now makes his living as an engineer working with computers, programming, robot design, and other fields.