duck soup and poop

It started off as what would be considered toy models. Ultimately, they contributed to the development of early industrial age machinery. At the time, there was a fad for the mechanical and his work almost qualifies to be in the realm of moving sculptures like Alexander Caldwell or Jean Tinguely. …

Where does the duck soup go? It was early robotics.An automaton that sparked discussion about the kinetic movement of animals, something akin to Edward Muybridge and his moving photographs. Vaucanson’s spell binding transformations of the animal into the automatic were somewhat fraudulent. A magician’s sleight of hand. But interesting. Ultimately it was entertainment. Fake or not, his Duck, a defecating duck at that, was a mechanical masterpiece, apparently  containing  a thousand moving parts.  Even more than that, it was an object to think with, a thing that sparked a discussion about what it means to be “alive” in a trans-human sense.

---Vaucanson’s duck is one of several “automata” made by Jacques Vaucanson (1709-1782). The actual duck has been lost - reportedly lost in a fire while on tour in Russia - and few surviving photographs exist. The image I was most familiar with, a sketch that shows the inner workings of the Duck, seems to be just a guesswork. Vaucanson demonstrated that the Duck could eat corn, digest them, and defecate, and hinted that he was going to show how the mechanism worked at some later time. He never did, and in fact it was later shown that the digestive system was fake - the corn went in one way, but the “excrement” that came out the other end was not the result of any process (chemical, mechanical, biological or otherwise) but simply a whitish substance that was loaded before the demonstration.---Read More:

It all began when Vaucanson entered the clergy as a teenager. There was a visit from one of the governing heads of Les Ordre des Minimes and Vaucanson felt he could make some automata, which would serve dinner and clear the tables, and perhaps wash the dishes for the visiting politicians.Take some grandiose DaVinci ideas and apply them for domestic purposes in the service of the Lord.  However one government official declared that  Vaucanson’s projects were “profane”, in opposition to the word of God, and ordered his superiors to demo the workshop since it was an abomination.

Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck followed the principles of Descartes’s mechanistic universe, and bolstered the Enlightenment-era belief that animals were just meat machines, but automatons nonetheless. The ability to create life no longer was the domain of God and of living organisms, but was now captive in the hands of man’s genius. These ideas terrified and excited many people, but were one of the major ideological changes from a natural to a mechanistic world view.Read More:

To produce his mechanisms, which demanded great exactitude, he designed among other things a precision lathe to cut threads. He was also the first to use a rubber hose. In his search for a suitable material for the duck’s digestive canal, de Vaucanson came across the reports left by his compatriot Charles Marie de la Condamine about the remarkable material cautchouc, which he had discovered on the Amazon River during his expedition to South America in 1731. Vaucanson made hoses of this material and also invented a machine for that purpose.

---Voltaire was suitably impressed, and wrote, "Without Vaucanson's Duck, you have nothing to remind you of the glory of France." Just how sarcastic or not he may have been is left to the imagination. ...the duck made its last formal appearance at the Exposition Universelle at the Palais Royal in Paris in 1844. The illusionist and automata maker Robert-Houdin was employed after the exposition to repair damages to a wing. During his repairs, he took the opportunity to turn a critical eye to the famous digestive tract of the duck, and announced triumphantly, "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." Read More: image:

De Vaucanson became rich from exhibiting his automata, and word spread across Europe.He was also given public recognition for his work and was elected to the esteemed Academie des Sciences. But after touring for only a couple of years, he abandoned the building of automata, which was primarily a hobby, and became the director of the state-owned silk-mills. In his later years, he spent his time collecting interesting machines and pieces of apparatus. These eventually amounted to an impressive collection, which he bequeathed to the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, then an institute for technical education, and today a highly thought-of museum.

---...In the same 1738 Vaucanson presented The Flute Player to the French Academy of Science. For this occasion he wrote a lengthy report—a dissertation entitled "Mechanism of the automaton flute player" ("Mécanisme du flûteur automate"), carefully describing how his automaton can play exactly like an alive person. These were the 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....Read More:

De Vaucanson’s three automata met different fates. The flute- and tambourine-playing shepherd was destroyed in the revolution, while the others were bought by a German collector, Gottfried Christoph Beireis, a judge in Hemstedt. The social circle of this eccentric included Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who in his diary for 1805 described a meeting with de Vaucanson’s automata. “They were in the most deplorable condition,” the great poet wrote. “The duc

s like a skeleton and had digestive problems…” Read More:

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