Jacques de Vaucanson and his Miraculous Automata

Jacques de Vaucanson
(1709 – 1782)

On February 24, 1709, French inventor and artist Jacques Vaucanson was born, who is best known for the creation of impressive and innovative automata and machines such as the first completely automated loom.

Jacques de Vaucanson grew up in a poor family, his father was occupied as a glove maker and Jacques himself wanted to become a clockmaker. He was educated by Jesuits but even though his interest in religious studies grew he always preferred working on mechanical devices. A big influence to Vaucanson depicted the medical surgeon Le Cat, who taught him in anatomy, wherefore it became easier constructing devices that would mimic biological functions.

But Vaucanson was not the first, interested in building automata. Constructions of these kind are known to have exist in the ancient Greece, like the Antikthera mechanism, which was designed to work out astronomical positions. In the 8th century, some wind powered automata were built and polymath Al-Jazari constructed several devices automatically playing music or automatic hand washing devices still in use today (for flush toilets). In the Renaissance, many clockwork automata were designed and built and France depicted the most important area for mechanical toys. Jacques de Vaucanson opened his first workshop in Lyon at the age of 18 and was therefore at the right location to improve his skills and find sympathizers. His duty in Lyon was to build various machines for a nobleman, but unfortunately, his efforts were not appreciated by everyone. When a group of governmental officials came to the city, he built several androids that would serve dinner and perform other helping tasks through the evening, but after that night his machines were declared foolish and were to be destroyed.

Still, the talented Vaucanson did not give up and created what has until then become the most successful biomechanical automation, ‘The Flute Player‘ in 1737. After his presentation of the device at the Académie des Sciences the year after, his machine was considered a toy but still a revolutionary of its kind. In the following years he created further devices like the ‘Tambourine Player‘ or his most famous ‘Digesting Duck‘. It consisted of more than 400 moving parts in only one wing and could do almost everything that a real duck could do, move its wings, drink water, digest, and defecate. His invention experienced a great positive impact. Voltaire even said that “without…the duck of Vaucanson, you will have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.

In the early 1740’s, Vaucanson began his duties for the French government and created the world’s first automated loom in 1745. Vaucanson designed further machines to automate the textile industry and more machine tools helping production processes, wherefore he became a member of the Académie des Sciences.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a prophetic talk from 2003 by roboticist Rodney Brooks, who talks about how robots are working their way into our lives.

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