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Mechanical marvels: How early automata wowed the world

BY Harry Pearson

18th Feb 2023 Life

Mechanical marvels: How early automata wowed the world

Clockwork wonders and automata from Vaucanson and Von Kempelen made the impossible seem possible in the 18th century

The metal duck sat on a table, its gold-plated copper body glowing in the candlelight. At the command of its creator, Jacques de Vaucanson, the bird stood up, flapped its wings, stretched out its neck, pecked and then swallowed a beak-full of wheat. It drank some water. It settled itself, then, with a quack jumped up and—to the astonishment of the audience—pooped onto a silver dish. 

The watching Louis XV chuckled with amazement and delight. The philosopher Voltaire pronounced himself dumbfounded and credited Vaucanson with breathing life into a mass of metal and rubber tubing. 

Vaucanson, a glove-maker’s son from Grenoble, had built automatons before. As a monk he had astonished his Abbott by devising a machine that served dinner. Instead of being impressed, the Abbott denounced the contraption as diabolical and threatened a trial for witchcraft. Vaucanson fled to Paris.  

Vaucanson’s creations in Paris 

Here he found a more understanding audience and wealthy patrons. In 1738, he debuted a realistic human automaton that—powered by bellows—played the flute. Another flautist, this one with a larger repertoire, soon followed. Both model musicians drew crowds, but it was the defecating duck that truly captured the imagination of the French public.  

"In an age of philosophy, the duck raised questions about the nature of existence"

The animated fowl was, most observers agreed, “the greatest masterpiece of mechanics that humankind has ever created”. Others speculated wildly on what might follow. For if Vaucanson could build a duck that digested food, might he not also create a bird that breathed, whose heart beat, that grew and laid eggs that hatched tiny versions of itself? In an age of philosophy, the duck raised questions about the nature of existence. 

History of automata 

Mankind’s fascination with automata has a history stretching back to ancient Greece. King Solomon was said to have a throne guarded by mechanical beasts that roared as he approached. There are accounts of a marvellous mechanical man that entertained King Mu of Zhou in 10th century China. The Ottoman Turks produced automated metal birds which sang. 

The Silver Swan © Bowes Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was from the mid-18th century to the end of the Victorian age, however, that the building of automata truly flourished. The machines had a universal appeal. The Silver Swan that now resides in Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, England was created by the Belgian John Joseph Merlin in 1773. Mark Twain saw it in Paris and wrote that the bird “had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eye.”

The swan was bought by Sir John Bowes in the 1870s for £200 (equivalent to around £20,000 today). The gracious waterfowl continues to perform daily, endearing itself to modern audiences much as it did when it charmed the creator of Huckleberry Finn 150 years ago. 

Von Kempelen and The Turk 

One of the most famous automatons of all time was designed and built by Wolfgang Von Kempelen, a maker of music boxes. Von Kempelen’s Turk first appeared before Empress Maria Theresa of Austria in 1770.

"The automaton dumbfounded the audience by playing and beating all-comers at chess"

A life-size figure, dressed in Turkish robes and a turban, the automaton dumbfounded the audience by playing and beating all-comers at chess. Von Kempelen took his incredible invention on a tour of Europe. In Paris it was said to have challenged and defeated both Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. 

Influence on sci-fi and computers 

The Turk moved on to the US, provoking amazement in all who saw it. In truth there was not much to wonder at—the “automaton” was no such thing. It was actually a puppet, operated by a small man hidden inside its impressive-looking mechanism.

An illustration from a book that tried to explain the illusions behind the Turk © Joseph Racknitz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An illustration from a book that tried to explain the illusions behind the Turk © Joseph Racknitz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Allan Poe witnessed The Turk perform in Richmond, Virginia. He decided that it was a trick but was inspired to write about a world where machines really could out-think humans. In doing so, Poe invented a strain of science-fiction that spawned everything from Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner to Steven Spielberg’s AI Artificial Intelligence.  

In London, Charles Babbage saw the Turk in action. He too thought it a hoax. The automaton did, however, make him ponder how a real calculating engine might be made. The result was his difference machine, the world’s first computer. Von Kempelen’s contraption may have been a con, but its influence on our world was very real. 

Modern automata 

Surprisingly, in the age of the computerised android, automata are still being made in the traditional way. Ever more intricate, they command high prices. Christian Bailly a modern maker of automata, based in Switzerland, has listed for sale a one-off automaton called “the bird trainer”, priced at over five million pounds. 

The end of Vaucanson’s mechanical bird  

As for Vaucanson’s amazing mechanical bird, well, it met a sad end. After touring Europe for over a century, the digesting duck made its final major public appearance at the Paris Exposition of 1844. Here it was observed by the great magician Jean Robert-Houdin (from whom Harry Houdini took his name).

"As for Vaucanson’s amazing mechanical bird, well, it met a sad end"

The professional conjuror was not so easily fooled as monarchs and philosophers. He saw right away that the duck’s most incredible feat was a simple trick. The duck did not digest at all. The bird’s faeces was a handful of breadcrumbs dyed green, hidden in a chamber in its rear end. 

No longer quite the marvel it had once been, the digesting duck was taken off on another tour. It was finally burned to a crisp in a house fire in Krakow, Poland in 1889.  

Find out more about some of the history of Automata with - 'Animating Empire: Automata, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Early Modern World' on Amazon.

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