Man’s preoccupation with automata dates as far back as the antiquity. There are many examples of automata in Greek mythology: Hephaestus created automata for his workshop; Talos was an artificial man of bronze; Daedalus used quicksilver to install voice in his moving statues; King Alkinous of the Phaiakians employed gold and silver watchdogs.
Throughout history, man invented several automata worthy of note such as the water-powered automata built by Ktesibios, a Greek inventor and the first head of the Great Library of Alexandria (3rd century BC), the first wind-powered statues that turned with the wind over the domes of the four gates and the palace complex of the Round City of Baghdad (mid-8th century AD), Al-Jazari’s complex programmable humanoid automata like a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties (13th century AD), Athanasius Kircher’s statue which spoke and listened via a speaking tube (17th century AD), and many others.
The world’s first successfully-built biomechanical automaton is considered to be The Flute Player, invented by the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson(1709-1782), in 1737. He also constructed the Digesting Duck, a mechanical duck that gave the false illusion of eating and defecating, seeming to endorse Cartesian ideas that animals are no more than machines of flesh.
The Flute Player was a human-shaped machine that literally played the flute using the same method as a human would: air. When Vaucanson first designed the creature, he found its metal hands couldn’t grip or finger the flute, so he did the only sensible thing and gave the hands skin.
In her 2002 book Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, Gaby Wood writes: “Nine bellows were attached to three separate pipes that led into the chest of the figure. Each set of three bellows was attached to a different weight to give out varying degrees of air, and then all pipes joined into a single one, equivalent to a trachea, continuing up through the throat and widening to form the cavity of the mouth. The lips, which bore upon the hole of the flute, could open and close and move backwards or forwards. Inside the mouth was a moveable metal tongue, which governed the air-flow and created pauses.”
In other words, the automaton simulated the human function of breathing, a fact that gives it the delineation biomechanical android. The Flute Player was able to perform twelve songs. Vaucanson presented his work to the Académie des Sciences in 1738 where it was considered a toy but still a revolutionary of its kind. Johannes Joachim Quantz, back then court musician and long-time flute instructor to Frederick II of Prussia, discussed the shortcomings of Vaucanson’s mechanical flute player. For instance, he discussed the inability to correctly move the lips which resulted in the necessity of increasing the wind pressure for the upper octaves.
Gaby Wood writes: “The Automaton Flute Player was first exhibited on February 11, 1738. The price of entry was three livres, a week’s wages for a manual labourer. Vaucanson demonstrated the object himself, to groups of 10 to 15 people at a time. The show was a huge success. The figure was made of wood, and painted white to look like Coysevox’s marble. It was life-size – five and a half feet tall – and was supported by a large pedestal. The flute, as Vaucanson had learned from his musical acquaintances, was considered one of the hardest instruments to play in tune – notes are produced not just by fingers and breath but by varying amounts of air blown into the flute, and different shapings of the lips. He had set himself an apparently impossible task, and emerged with a machine that could play 12 different melodies. The virtue of this flute player, and the reason it seemed an ideal Enlightenment device, was that Vaucanson had arrived at those sounds by mimicking the very means by which a man would make them. There was a mechanism to correspond to every muscle.”
Jacques de Vaucanson died in Paris in 1782. Vaucanson left a collection of his work as a bequest to Louis XVI. The collection would become the foundation of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. His original automata have all been lost. The Flute Player and the Tambourine Player (another android of his) were reportedly destroyed in the Revolution. His proposals for the automation of the weaving process, although ignored during his lifetime, were later perfected and implemented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, the creator of the Jacquard loom.
Lycee Vaucanson in Grenoble is named in his honor, and trains students for careers in engineering and technical fields.