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A French Automaton

"Without the shitting duck, there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France." - Voltaire

The Age of Enlightenment was a time of great excitement in Europe, a time when it was felt that one day humanity would be relieved from the toilsome burdens of labour. Automata were everywhere. The chessplaying Turk was one of a huge number of machines designed to entertain and amaze the wealthy, although many (like The Turk) were fakes built to cash in on the fad.

It was in 1739 that Jacques de Vaucanson unveiled his Canard Digérateur, a sophisticated model whose purpose was to demonstrate the possibilities of machines. The duck would stretch out its neck to take grains from the hand, swallow, digest and finally, excrete them.

Vaucanson was not just a toy-maker; he had a serious point to make, namely that animals (and humans) were just machines, albeit tremendously sophisticated examples of the Divine Watchmaker. Among his many labours to complete the Duck, we had to devise a means of transporting the ground-up grain, and the excreta, around the machine. To this end he was required to make rubber tubing, an invention to which we owe a great deal today.

It has to be said that the duck did not, of course, truly digest the food it was given. The ground-up food was transported to a receptacle for storage, while the poop came from a separate container. The appearance of a living, digesting animal was, however, compelling. Vaucanson paid a great deal of attention to the detail, making certain that the non-digesting parts of the duck (head, neck and wings) were pretty much anatomically correct. Furthermore, it was designed to show off the internal mechanism, although for the ladies, some parts were "decently covered".


Chemistry Daily

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