Radiolab's recent "A Clockwork Miracle" episode concerns a sixteenth-century mechanical monk, but Jad also briefly mentions the wonders of a robotic pooping duck from the 1700s. Yep, you read that right: a centuries-old automaton designed to digest food and poop it out like a duck.
The fabulous digesting duck was the handiwork of Jacques de Vaucanson, a French engineer who excelled in the creation of automatons -- specifically "philosophical toys" (curios that combined science and amusement) composed of clockwork gears and moving parts. Here are just two of his creations leading up to the duck:
Android Waiters: Vaucanson built these automata in 1727 to serve dinner and clear the table. Unfortunately, a visitor condemned the creation as "profane" and ordered the workshop destroyed.
Mechanical flute player: Powered by nine bellows, this mechanical wooden man could play 12 different melodies on the flute. A metal tongue regulated air passing through the lips and gloved, wooden fingers covered the holes in the flute as required by the melody.
But you were promised a pooping duck, weren't you?
As Gaby Wood writes in "Living Dolls: A Magical History Of The Quest For Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood" (excerpt here), this gold-plated copper duck could quack, drink, raise up on its legs and -- most famously at all -- eat grain and poop. The grain was reportedly passed through tubes to a chemical-filled stomach in the base and then on through duck's bowels, anus and a mechanical sphincter.
However, according to author Jessika Riskin, the duck didn't actually convert food into poop. It just collected the grain in one tube and pushed out excrement from a different one.
But what really fascinates me about all this is Wood's suggestion for WHY a man of Vaucanson 's genius was so enthralled by mechanical duck defecation. In addition to proving both popular and lucrative (it scored him a gig designing looms for the King of France), Vaucanson was a man of troubled bowels. Here's what she has to say:
As with most early roboticists, the driving force here was the concept that the human body was essentially a machine. Even as the realization limited the human condition, it also elevated the engineer to a status reviling that of God.
The quest continues to this day. And just look: we're still designing robots that can eat and digest food. Let's watch EcoBot II go potty: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU6zi1_aZiw]