The Pooping Duck: Marvel of 18th Century Robotics


Inside the pooping duck.
Inside the pooping duck.
Creative Commons/Spiff_27

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:

Vaucanson, it must be said, was a man much preoccupied by the state of his body. He was plagued by an illness that had prevented him from eating. He suffered from a fistula of the anus. The mechanician's particular mention of the bowels, anus and sphincter of the duck -- parts audiences may have preferred to imagine for themselves - might be seen as a reflection of his own personal preoccupations.

Amazing.

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]

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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.