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The First Automaton to Simulate Biological Processes (1739 – 1742)


In 1738 Jacques Vaucanson completed his Canard digérateur or Digesting Duck, an automaton that imitated or simulated the process of eating kernels of grain, of digestion, and of defecation.

"The duck had over 400 moving parts in each wing alone, and could flap its wings, drink water, digest grain, and defecate. 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; the duck would eat a mixture of water and seed and excrete a mixture of bread crumbs and green dye that appeared to the onlooker indistinguishable from real excrement. 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. Despite the revolutionary nature of his automata, he is said to have tired quickly of his creations and sold them in 1743" (Wikipedia article on Jacques Vaucanson, accessed 05-20-2013).

Vaucanson's Canard digérateur was the first automaton to simulate biological processes.

In 1742 Vaucanson's flute-player and his duck were exhibited at the Opera House in the Hay-Market in London. In association with that exhbition  Vaucanson's booklet describing the automata was translated into English by J. T. Desaguliers and published as An Account of the Machanism of an Automaton, or Images Playing on the German Flute