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Vaucanson: Jacques de Vaucanson, a prolific inventor of French ethnicity, completed his education at the Jesuit College of Grenobe where thereafter, he proceeded to Paris to pursue studies in mechanics. Upon reaching Paris, technologies relating to the production of artificial machines captured his interest. He created automatons such as "The Flute Player" and "The Tambourine Player," but the most famous of these machines was the defecating duck, which simulated the process of digestion. This "eighteenth-century mechanical duck...swallowed corn and grain and, after a pregnant pause, relieved itself of an authentic-looking burden" (Riskin). The ingenuity in Vaucanson's creations captured the attention of Louis XV who wished to see if he could, in a similar matter to his defecating duck, capture "the circulation of the blood" (Riskin).

Vaucanson's mechanical duck, however, was not as realistic in its expulsion as first perceived. Instead, the input of grain and output were two separate substances. "The food did not continue down the neck and into the stomach but rather stayed at the base of the mouth tube" so the material released during excretion was in reality, a fraudulent output, as it deceived the audience, allowing them to believe the same input led to the output (Riskin).

In “Signs of Times,” Thomas Carlyle criticizes the devotion people have to technology, using Vaucanson's automaton to highlight this devotion to something false. Since the inventor creates a machine that worked by systematical steps, it seems to focus more on mechanical processes than on the importance of thinking. Deceit flourishes as Vaucanson abandoned the truth in invention and chooses to amplify the magnificence of technology. Carlyle uses Nurembergers' "wood-and-leather man, 'who should reason as well as most country parsons,'" to satirize Vaucanson and his defecating duck. The satire serves to emphasize this flaw in the public to focus on the systematic and aesthetics than the "bold scheme" of "a more modern virtuoso."


Riskin, Jessica. "The Defecating Duck, or, The Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life." Critical Inquiry 29.4. (2003): 599-633. 22 Mar. 2010.

Gale, Thomas. "World of Invention on Jaques de Vaucanson." Bookrags.com. Thomas Corporation, 2005-2006. Web. 21 Mar. 2010.

Last modified 24 March 2010