Mechanical Automation – Fake Ducks & Digestion in the 1700s!

When we think of mechanical automation and robots of today’s era, we often think of Boston Dynamics and their BigDog robot. This is a stable, military-grade robot that can move and walk across rough terrain. Its intention or purpose was to help soldiers with their packs and act as an automated pack mule. However, long before the computer technology and electricity that powers robots like BigDog became a thing, mechanical automation was still being used to make artificial machines. One such popular one is the artificial duck of Jacques de Vaucanson, known as the Digesting Duck, which could eat, digest, and pass real corn.

The Digesting Duck of Jacques de Vaucanson

While Jacques de Vaucanson made several automata, the Digesting Duck or Pooping Duck became one of his best-known inventions due to its remarkable engineering. He designed it in 1739 and mimicked it as precisely as possible after a real-life duck, even down to the construction of the wings! Jacques de Vaucanson boasted that there was nothing wrong with his construction or design and that anatomists would not be able to tell its construction apart from the real-life bird. When wound up, it would waddle, play in water, quack, and drink water as a real duck would.

How Did the Digesting Duck Work?

Jacques de Vaucanson detailed how the mechanisms of his duck worked in a 1742 booklet that was distributed and printed by T. Parker in London.  The 1742 booklet describes how the intestines work with regards to how the fake duck is able to eat, drink, and digest its corn. Here is how it worked.

  • Once wound up, the duck could stretch out its neck and take a piece of corn right out of your hand.
  • It would then swallow the piece of corn whole.
  • The piece of corn would be digested and passed through the back end of the duck.

How? Through the use of pipes. When the duck stretches out its neck to take the piece of corn, it pulls it back at double the speed of the initial stretch, greedily swallowing the corn in the process. The corn then travels through a pipe into the stomach where it is “digested”. Once here, it travels down another series of pipes to the anus where the sphincter lets the corn out.

While the Digesting Duck was not his first invention, as he did create an automated flute player and another that beat a drum, it was quite a marvel in the 1700s where mechanical automation was concerned.  Unfortunately, Jacque de Vaucanson didn’t put his talents to any other mechanical automata that would provide practical utility.