Vaucanson’s mechanical duck

“The Duck stretches out its neck to take corn out of your hand; it swallows it, digests it, and discharges it digested by the usual passage.” Jacques Vaucanson, 1738

The 18th century mechanical duck was an animal-robot wonder. Designed to ingest, digest and eliminate food, basic activities of an organic creature, it was to be proof of human ingenuity and ability to mimic nature itself. Though from the outside it seemed the mechanical duck performed these three essential tasks, once the mechanism was opened it turned out to be a fraud. It was a representation, rather than replication, of the digestion process. The corn did not go anywhere, it did not nourish the machine. The mechanical duck could not live on its own. It was accused of being “nothing more than a coffee grinder.”

Vaucanson was called “Prometheus’s rival,” yet what he offered was not fire but a fake fireplace. The mechanical duck refused to abide by the organic laws of nature the inventor tried to replicate with technology. Instead, it remained mechanically lifeless, a beautiful artifice in its own right. It was a bird of a different feather, and demanded to be treated as such.

See: Stefan Helmreich, ‘‘Life Is a Verb’’: Inflections of Artificial Life in Cultural Context, Artificial Life, 2007, 13.

Jessica Riskin, The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life, Critical Inquiry, 2003, 29:4.

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