February 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Jacques de Vaucanson

When do you suppose the first robots were built? In the 1990s? The 80s?

Maybe the first robots were built in the 1940s, in the early days of computers?

Nope. According to some sources, the first true robots were built by de Vaucanson, a French inventor and artist, way back in 1737.

The 1700s was a time when there was a “craze” about self-operating machines called automata, which have existed in one form or another since ancient times. Most of these automata were just toys. De Vaucanson upped the ante by building biomechanical robots that were revolutionary for their “life-like sophistication.” 

You may be wondering just what kind of robots this 18th-Century inventor would create.

I bet you'd never guess...

He built The Flute Player, The Tambourine Player, and The Digesting Duck

De Vaucanson's robot flute-player was a life-size figure of a shepherd whose robot fingers were gloved in real skin. The robot could play 12 different songs on the tabor and the pipe.

The Digesting Duck had over 400 moving parts and could flap its wings, drink water, eat grain, and “defecate.” It seemed that the duck was actually digesting the food that it ate and then “pooping” it out again – but it was a trick! The robot duck actually had a hidden compartment of “digested food” to defecate. De Vaucanson probably created the fraud so that he could impress the wealthy and the powerful so the money would keep coming to him and his lab.

The illustration seen here was by an American who saw the digesting duck demonstration. This is what he thought the insides might look like in order to digest food. But, of course, the duck didn't actually digest food--so this drawing is all wrong!

De Vaucanson invented some things that were more immediately practical. While creating his robot duck, he invented the world's first flexible rubber tube. He also created the first completely automated loom to weave cloth.

More robots!

Check out robot news at Robot Cafe

Buy a robot kit! Sure, you could go to Amazon.com, but take a peek at the Edmund Scientific website, too. 

For more, check out this earlier post

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