Thursday, October 31, 2013

October 31, 1739 - Flatulent Duck Robot

French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson (February 24, 1709 – November 21, 1782) unveiled his prized new creation that he initially had labeled the "Digesting Duck." An automaton craze struck Europe in the eighteenth century, leading toy-makers across the continent to create more and more elaborate clockwork devices. Vaucanson had grown up the poor son of a glove-maker, but his keen mind enabled him to earn an apprenticeship in clock-making. From there, he developed intricate humanoid devices that could lay out dinner or clear a table. He went on to create further androids that could play flutes and the tamborine.

His most famous creation came as a duck that could drink water, eat grain, and flap its wings, each wing having over 400 moving parts. Initially Vaucanson devised a trick to hide the grain, but he became obsessed with attempting to mimic live animals in the ability to digest. Through careful study of ducks, he worked alongside chemists to develop a strong acid that would break down grain, though it worked much more clearly with items such as chalk. After feeding it chalk, eventually through the system, a frothy white excrement would pop out the duck's backside.

While the duck gained great fame for its hilarity and Vaucanson was called delightfully crass, the study proved to show a powerful chemical reaction between acids and weak bases. Vaucanson moved on to create an automated loom and artificial horse, which operated on the pressure built up from gasses escaping the chemicals, driving pistons to do work. France leaped forward technologically, outpacing Britain in manufacturing and dominating European trade.


In reality, de Vaucanson's duck was a hoax that swallowed the grain and released prefabricated excrement from a hidden compartment. Two centuries later, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye would achieve de Vaucanson's ideal of a machine that actually digested.

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