Portrait de Jacques Vaucanson, élu pensionnaire de l’Académie royale des sciences le 9 juin, 1768

A rival to Prometheus, Vaucanson seemed to steal the heavenly fires in his search to give life. Voltaire

Jacques de Vaucanson

Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782) is a genius French engineer and inventor, who is credited with creating the world's first true robots, as well as for creating the first completely automated loom.

Born as Jacques Vaucanson (the particle de was added to his name in 1746, when he was made a member of the Académie des Sciences) in the french town of Grenoble, he was the tenth child of a poor glove-maker. As a little boy, Jacques quickly revealed his talent by fixing the watches and clock mechanisms of neighborhood inhabitants, constructing a clock and a small automaton-priests that duplicated a few of the ecclesiastical offices. Therefore, his family initially wanted Jacques to become a clockmaker, but was forced in 1715 to sent him to study at the Jesuit school in Grenoble (now Lycée Stendhal). In 1725 Vaucanson took orders and joined the Les Ordre des Minimes in Lyon.

There is an interesting legend for Vaucanson from this period: It seems despite his interest to follow a course of religious studies, Vaucanson retained his interest in mechanical devices, because in 1727, being just 18 years of age, he was given his own workshop in Lyon, and a grant from a nobleman to construct a set of machines. In the same 1727, there was a visit from one of the governing heads of Les Ordre des Minimes. Vaucanson decided to make some automata, which would serve dinner and clear the tables for the visiting politicians. However one government official declared that he thought Vaucanson's tendencies "profane", and ordered that his workshop be destroyed.

Anyway, in 1728 Vaucanson decided to left the monastery to devote himself to his mechanical interests, and departed to Paris, where he remained until 1731. In Paris he studied medicine and anatomy at the Jardin du Roi, being encouraged and supported by the Parisian financier Samuel Bernard (1651-1739), one of the wealthiest men of his time.

In 1731 Vaucanson left Paris for Rouen, where he met the famous surgeon and anatomist Claude-Nicolas Le Cat (1700-1768), whose own interest in replicating human anatomical forms and movements likely stimulated Vaucanson to begin work on his first automaton. Later Vaucanson met another famous french surgeon and economist, François Quesnay (1694-1774), who also encouraged him to create artificial creatures in order to put in evidence most of human or animal biological functions. Thus the young Vaucanson decided to further develop knowledge in anatomy by making living anatomies.

In 1732 Vaucanson traveled around France exhibiting his first automaton which he described as "a self-moving physical machine containing many automata, which imitate the natural functions of several animals by the action of fire, air, and water."

In 1733, Vaucanson signed a contract to build and exhibit another automaton with Jean Colvée (1696-1750), a man of the cloth whose interests included chemistry, natural history, geography and various business ventures. In 1736 however, having squandered funds supplied by Colvée, Vaucanson signed an agreement with a Parisian gentleman, Jean Marguin, to build an automated flute player in exchange for financial support—Marguin would retain one-third ownership of the completed automaton and receive half the money taken in when it was exhibited. Thus Vaucanson devoted himself to his first android The Flute Player, that he finished in 1737, and demonstrated before the French Academie in April, 1738. Later in 1738 he opened an exhibition to the public first at the fair of Saint-Germain, then in the reception room of the Hôtel de Longueville in Paris, in which presented initially only The Flute Player, but in the end of the year added two other automata, which we will examine later. In spite of an expensive admission ticket (3 livres, a week's salary for many workers), the exhibition was a triumph. When the visitors were less numerous, Vaucanson started a triumphant wide tour through France, and then in Italy and England.

Flute playerThe Flute Player was a life-size (178 cm tall) figure of a shepherd, dressed in a savage, that played the transverse flute and had a repertoire of twelve songs (in the nearby image you can see the inner workings of Vaucanson's flute player). The tune was played on a real instrument, a mechanism moves the lips and fingers of the player and pumps air through his mouth. The fingers are carved in wood with a piece of leather at the point where they cover the holes. The entire figure is made of wood with the exception of the arms which are made of cardboard.
The Flute Player, was seated on a rock put on a pedestal, like a statue. The case, enclosing a large part of the weight engine mechanism, housed a wooden cylinder (56 cm in diameter and 83 cm in length), which turned on its axis. Covered with tiny protrusions, it sent impulses to fifteen levers, which controlled, by means of chains and strings, the output of the air supply, the movements of the lips, the tongue as well as the articulation of the fingers.

In the same 1738 Vaucanson presented The Flute Player to the French Academy of Science. For this occasion he wrote a lengthy report—a dissertation entitled "Mechanism of the automaton flute player" ("Mécanisme du flûteur automate"), carefully describing how his automaton can play exactly like an alive person. These were the Academy's conclusions:
The Academy has heard the reading of a dissertation written by M. Jacques de Vaucanson. This dissertation included the description of a wooden statue playing the transverse flute, copied from the marble fauna of Coysevox. Twelve different tunes are played with a precision which merited the public attention, and which many members of the Academy were witnesses to. The Academy has judged that this machine was extremely ingenious; that the creator must have employed simple and new means, both to give the necessary movements to the fingers of this figure and to modify the wind that enters the flute by increasing or diminishing the speed according to the different sounds, by varying the position of the lips, by moving a valve which gives the functions of a tongue, and, at last, by imitating with art all that the human being is obliged to do.
And in addition to that, M. Jacques de Vaucanson's dissertation had all the clarity and precision of which this machine is capable, which proves both the intelligence of the creator and his extensive knowledge in all the mechanical parts.

In the same 1738, Vaucanson created two additional automatons, The Tambourine Player and The Digesting Duck (Canard Digérateur), which is considered his masterpiece.

There is very little information on The Tambourine Player. The automaton stood on its pedestal, like the The Flute Player. The Tambourine Player was a life-sized man dressed like a Provençal shepherd, who could play 20 different tunes on the flute of Provence (also called galoubet) with one hand, and on the tambourine with the other hand with all the precision and perfection of a skillful musician. It must have been equipped with a very complex mechanism, because it could play two different musical instruments and, according to Vaucanson, the galoubet was the "most unrewarding and inexact instrument that exists." Besides, he made the following note: "A curious discovery about the building of this automaton is that the galoubet is one of the most tiring instruments for the chest because muscles must sometimes make an effort equivalent to 56 pounds…".

The Digesting Duck was made of a gilded copper and had over 400 moving parts, and could quack, flap its wings, drink water, digest grain, and defecate like a living duck. Although Vaucanson's duck supposedly demonstrated digestion accurately, his duck actually contained a hidden compartment of "digested food", so that what the duck defecated was not the same as what it ate. Although such "frauds" were sometimes controversial, they were common enough because such scientific demonstrations needed to entertain the wealthy and powerful to attract their patronage. Vaucanson is credited as having invented the world's first flexible rubber tube while in the process of building the duck's intestines. Thanks to the open structure of its abdomen, the audience could even follow the digestive process from the throat to the sphincter which ejected a sort of green gruel.

Vaucanson's duckVaucanson provided his own description of his duck (the nearby image, showing internal mechanism, is from mid 1800s): …a duck, in which I show the mechanism of the viscera employed in the functions of drinking, eating and digestion; the way in which all the parts required for these actions function together is imitated precisely: the duck extends its neck to take the grain out of the hand, it swallows it, digests it and expels it completely digested through the usual channels; all the movements of the duck, which swallows precipitously and which works its throat still more quickly to pass the food into its stomach, are copied from nature; the food is digested in the stomach as it is in real animals, by dissolution and not by trituration, as a number of physicists have claimed it; but this is what I intend to demonstrate and show upon that occasion. The material digested in the stomach passes through tubes, as it does through the entrails in the animal, to the anus, where there is a sphincter to allow its release.
I do not claim that this digestion is a perfect digestion, able to make blood and nourishing particles to nurture the animal; to reproach me for this, I think, would show bad grace. I only claim to imitate the mechanics of this action in three parts which are: firstly, swallowing the grain; secondly, macerating, cooking or dissolving it; thirdly, expelling it in a markedly changed state.
However, the three acts needed means and perhaps these means will deserve some attention from the persons who would demand more accuracy. They will see the expedients that we used to make the artificial duck take the grain, suck it up into its stomach, and there, in a little space, build a chemical laboratory, to break down the main integral parts from it, and make it go out with no limit, through some convolutions of pipes, at an all opposed end of its body.
I think that the attentive people will understand the difficulty to make my automaton perform so many different movements; for instance, when it rises up onto its feet, and it steers its neck to the right and to the left. They will know all the changes of the different fulcrums; they will even see that what acted as a fulcrum for a mobile part, becomes then mobile on this part which becomes fixed itself. At last, they will discover an infinity of mechanical combinations.

Vaucanson's duckAt the time, mechanical creatures were somewhat a fad in Europe, but most could be classified as toys, and de Vaucanson's creations were recognized as being revolutionary in their mechanical life-like sophistication. In spite of the considerable success of his three automata (see the nearby image), Vaucanson tired of them quickly and sold them in 1743 to some entrepreneurs from Lyon, who toured with them for nearly a decade, showing them throughout Europe. Admission was always charged at these exhibitions and the automata appear to have brought in considerable revenue. Unfortunately, none of this survived to the present time. The musician automatons were lost or destroyed at the beginning of the 19th century, while the duck burnt in a museum in Krakow, Poland in 1889. For nearly 40 years however, until his death in 1782, Vaucanson worked on the plan to make "an automaton's face which would closely imitate the animal processes by its movements: blood circulation, breathing, digestion, the set of muscles, tendons, nerves, and so far…"

In 1741 Vaucanson was appointed by Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, chief minister of Louis XV, as inspector of the manufacture of silk in France. He was charged with undertaking reforms of the silk manufacturing process, because at the time, the French weaving industry had fallen behind that of England. In 1742 Vaucanson promoted wide-ranging changes for automation of the weaving process. Between 1745 and 1750, he created the world's first completely automated loom, drawing on the work of Basile Bouchon and Jean Falcon, who he probably knew from his life in Lyon in 1720s. However, Vaucanson's loom was not successful, his proposals were not well received by weavers, who pelted him with stones in the street and eventually lead to strikes and social unrest in Lyon.

A reconstruction of Vaucanson's loom

A reconstruction of Vaucanson's loom (© CNAM, Paris)

In the mechanism of Vaucanson's loom (see the upper image), the hooks that were to lift the warp threads were selected by long pins or needles, which were pressed against a sheet of punched paper, that was draped around a perforated cylinder. Specifically, each hook passed at a right angle through an eyelet of a needle. When the cylinder was pressed against the array of needles, some of the needles, pressing against solid paper, would move forward, which in turn would tilt the corresponding hooks. The hooks that were tilted would not be raised, so the warp threads that were snagged by those hooks would remain in place; however, the hooks that were not tilted, would be raised, and the warp threads that were snagged by those hooks would also be raised. By placing his mechanism above the loom, Vaucanson eliminated the complicated system of weights and cords (tail cords, simple, pulley box, etc.) that had been used to select which warp threads were to be raised during weaving. Vaucanson also added a ratchet mechanism to advance the punched paper each time that the cylinder was pushed against the row of hooks.

The idea behind the loom of Vaucanson was ingenious and technically sound, the prototypes also worked reasonably well. The problem, though, was that the metal cylinders were expensive and difficult to produce. Moreover, by their very nature, they could only be used for making images that involved regularly repeated designs. Obviously, by switching to new cylinders it is possible to produce designs of open-ended variety, but in practice the switching over of cylinders proved too time-consuming and laborious. A few examples of the loom did go into production, but it never really caught on and was soon discontinued.

Moreover, in 1741 Vaucanson commenced a project, to construct an automaton figure that simulated in its movements the animal functions, the circulation of the blood, respiration, digestion, the operation of muscles, tendons, nerves, etc. However, this was a too ambitious project. In 1762, he began to work on the more modest project of a machine, that would simulate just the circulation of the blood, using rubber tubes for veins. But this project, too, remained unrealized, because of inadequacies in contemporary rubber technology.

Jacques de Vaucanson was one of the significant inventors of 18th century. In 1740 he demonstrated a clockwork powered carriage. He is known as the builder of one of the first all metal slide rest lathe (in 1750), the precursor of the machine tools that will be developed during the 19th century. He was also one of he first, who used rubber in his machines. In 1770 he developed the first western chain drive, which is used in silk reeling and throwing mills.