Saturday, June 06, 2009

The duck that astounded Paris

In 1738, Jacques de Vaucanson presented duck to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris. Like any duck, this one rose upon its legs, threw its neck to the right and left, plumed its wings, made gurgling noises, played in the water with its bill, took food from people's hands and occasionally excreted. But this duck was completely mechanical.

Unfortunately, Vaucanson's duck no longer exists, only the description and drawings of it he published. The gilded-copper duck 'digested' food, but only after a fashion - it dissolved food in its stomach, but absorbed no energy in the process, and needed to be wound up.

Vaucanson must have been an inventor of considerable genius; the same year, at the age of 29, he demonstrated an automation that could faultlessly play 12 'airs' on the flute. He also built a shepherd that could play 20 tunes on his pipe with one hand and beat a drum with the other.

However, he did not restrict his talent to such whimsical projects. Applying himself to the challenge of building a machine to weave silk, he eventually designed an important forerunner of the modern automated loom. It was guided by perforated cards and powered by animals or falling water.

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