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A Year: Day to Day Men: 24th of February, Solar Year 2018

The Sunken Garden

Jacques de Vaucanson, a French inventor and artist, was born on February 24, 1709.

At just 18 years of age, Jacques de Vaucanson was given his own workshop in Lyon, and a grant from a nobleman to construct a set of machines. Vaucanson decided to make some automata, self-operating machines designed to automatically follow a predetermined sequence of operations. The automata would serve dinner and clear the tables for the visiting politicians. However one government official declared that he thought Vaucanson’s tendencies “profane”, and ordered that his workshop be destroyed.

In 1737, Vaucanson built “The Flute Player”, a life-size figure of a shepherd that played a portable snare drum and the pipe and had a repertoire of twelve songs. The following year, in early 1738, he presented his creation to the Académie des Sciences. Mechanical creatures were somewhat a fad in Europe; but most could be classified as toys. Vaucanson’s creations were recognized as being revolutionary in their mechanical lifelike sophistication.

Later that year, he created two additional automata, “The Tambourine Player” and “The Digesting Duck”, which is considered his masterpiece. The duck had over 400 moving parts in each wing alone, and could flap its wings, drink water, digest grain, and defecate. Although Vaucanson’s duck supposedly demonstrated digestion accurately, his duck actually contained a hidden compartment of “digested food”, so that what the duck defecated was not the same as what it ate. Despite the revolutionary nature of his automata, he is said to have tired quickly of his creations and sold both in 1743.

In 1741 he was appointed by Cardinal Fleury, chief minister of Louis XV, as inspector of the manufacture of silk in France and was charged with undertaking reforms of the silk manufacturing process. In 1745, he created the world’s first completely automated loom. Drawing on the work of Basile Bouchon and Jean Falcon, Vaucanson was trying to automate the French textile industry with punch cards; but his proposals were not well received and largely ignored by the weaving industry.  The technology he proposed, as refined by Joseph-Marie Jacquard more than a half century later, would revolutionize weaving and, in the twentieth century, would be used to input data into computers and store information in binary form.

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