Photo credit: Windell H. Oskay,
on creative engineering and new media art

The Digesting Duck (1739)

October 18th, 2010


Automaton by Jacques de Vaucanson

Vaucanson’s duck is one of several “automata” made by Jacques Vaucanson (1709-1782). The actual duck has been lost – reportedly lost in a fire while on tour in Russia – and few surviving photographs exist. The image I was most familiar with, a sketch that shows the inner workings of the Duck, seems to be just a guesswork.

Vaucanson demonstrated that the Duck could eat corn, digest them, and defecate, and hinted that he was going to show how the mechanism worked at some later time. He never did, and in fact it was later shown that the digestive system was fake – the corn went in one way, but the “excrement” that came out the other end was not the result of any process (chemical, mechanical, biological or otherwise) but simply a whitish substance that was loaded before the demonstration.

Fake or not, the Duck was a mechanical masterpiece (according to some sources containing over a thousand moving parts) and even more than that, an object to think with, a thing that sparked a discussion about what it means to be “alive”.

Further reading