An 18th-century robot duck

Vaucansons Duck. Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Vaucanson's Duck. Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

I’ve recently begun reading Kathryn Shevelow’s For the Love of Animals, a history of the origins of the animal protection movement focused on England in the 17th through 19th centuries. The book’s been informative and enjoyable thus far, and one early passage in particular has tapped into a longtime fascination of mine for 18th and 19th-century technologies that presage the 20th century in strange and wonderful ways. I’m thinking here of people like Charles Babbage (who designed what was essentially a mechanical computer) and Ada Lovelace (who wrote a paper describing what is considered to be the first computer program, a good century before there was a computer to run it). In her book, Shevelow mentions an automaton of which I was previously unaware:

In 1739, the French inventor and engineer Jacques de Vaucanson fashioned a duck-shaped automaton of gilt copper that featured hundreds of moveable parts and innards made of rubber tubing. This remarkable mechanical duck moved its head, craned its neck, stirred water with its bill and drank it, quacked, stretched its leg, flapped its wings, shook its tail, swallowed grain, and ‘digested’ food—then excreted it. Open panels in the duck’s sides allowed one to view its rubber intestines in action. Having created a sensation in Europe, Vaucanson’s duck crossed the channel to London in 1742, where it flapped, ate, and shat in the Royal Opera House four times a day, to the delight and wonder of the British public.

I love the simultaneous rational seriousness and lowbrow showmanlike appeal of Vaucanson’s duck: in its time, it was a dazzling display of mechanical inventiveness and cutting-edge scientific knowledge, but also an entertaining and somewhat vulgar spectacle. The duck gave its audiences a literal window into mechanical marvels, as well as an embodied display of contemporary philosophical and scientific ideas about animals. And as a bonus, they got to see it poop, in the same place where the King came to see the opera.


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