Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Lecture 13.  Automata

Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782)

Since Hero of Alexandria's time, a number of automata -- ingenious machines that appear to move themselves -- had been constructed.  Powered by hidden gravity-based verge-and-foliot clockwork mechanisms, or unseen sources of water, steam or wind, these complex mechanical devices opened doors, rotated figures, produced sounds, and performed a variety of repetitive, regulating functions.  After Descartes' Treatise on Man appeared in print in 1664, the notion that humans were not only machine builders, but the ultimate in self-moving machines, inspired a new way of thinking about man-made automata.  Jacques de Vaucanson pioneered the creation of what he called "moving anatomies":  machines that could simulate internal living processes like digestion, respiration and blood circulation.  To achieve this challenging goal would require a mechanical turn of mind, a knack for tinkering, an intimate familiarity with the physical processes themselves, and, perhaps most important of all, an ability to generate interest in and financial support for such an audacious project.

  • born in Grenoble, France
  • reputed to have demonstrated an early interest in tinkering with machines and mastery of clockwork mechanisms
  • began studies with Jesuits in Grenoble
  • entered the Minim monastery in Lyons
  • left the monastery to devote himself to his mechanical interests
  • studied medicine and anatomy at the Jardin du Roi in Paris
  • encouraged and supported by Parisian financier, Samuel Bernard (1651-1739), one of the wealthiest men of his time
  • left Paris for Rouen, where he met the notable surgeon and anatomist Claude-Nicolas Le Cat (1700-1768) whose own interest in replicating human anatomical forms and movements likely stimulated Vaucanson to begin work on his first automaton
  • traveled around France exhibiting his automaton which he described as "a self-moving physical machine containing many automata which imitate the natural functions of several animals by the action of fire, air, and water."
  • signed a contract to build and exhibit another automaton with Jean Colvée (1696-1750), a man of the cloth whose interests included chemistry, natural history, geography and various business ventures
  • having squandered funds supplied by Colvée, Vaucanson signed an agreement with a Parisian gentleman, Jean Marguin, to build an automated flute player in exchange for financial support; Marguin would retain one-third ownership of the completed automaton and receive half the money taken in when it was exhibited

The inner workings of Vaucanson's flute player.  Adapted from illustration (p. 81) in Jacques Vaucanson: Mecanicien de Genie (1966), by Andre Doyon and Lucien Liaigre.

  • in February, put flute player on exhibit with an admission charge of 3 livres (a week's salary for many workers)
  • its success caused Vaucanson to take legal measures to alter the terms of his contract with Marguin
  • in April, demonstrated flute player before the Académie des Sciences in order to win its approval
  • to boost lagging exhibit attendance, introduced two new automata:  a duck and a fife-and-drum player
Mr. VAUCANSON'S Letter to the
ABBÉ De Fontaine

My second Machine, or Automaton, is a Duck, in which I represent the Mechanism of the Intestines which are employed in the Operations of Eating, Drinking, and Digestion:  Wherein the Working of all the Parts necessary for those Actions is exactly imitated.  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.  You see all the Actions of a Duck that swallows greedily, and doubles the Swiftness in the Motion of its Neck and Throat or Gullet to drive the Food into its Stomach, copied from Nature:  The Food is digested as in real Animals, by Dissolution, not Trituration, as some natural Philosophers will have it....

  • named inspector of Royal Silk Manufacturers
  • reputed to have returned to his original project of creating an artificial man that would display respiration, digestion, and blood circulation in addition to muscular motions; rubber tubing (a technological development pioneered by Vaucanson for this purpose) would be used to simulate the blood vessels
Julian Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751)

Man is so complicated a machine that it is impossible to get a clear idea of the machine beforehand, and hence impossible to define it.  For this reason, all the investigations have been vain, which the greatest philosophers have made a priori....  Thus it is only a posteriori or by trying to disentangle the soul from the organs of the body, so to speak, that one can reach the highest probability concerning man's own nature, even though one cannot discover with certainty what his nature is....

-- Man a Machine (1747)


1709 • born in Saint Malo, France
• studied humanities for several years; became a Jansenist
1725 • took up study of natural philosophy and medicine
1733 • traveled to Leyden to study with Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738)
1734 • translated works of others: Boerhaave, Sydenham...
• wrote his own medical treatises (on venereal disease, vertigo, smallpox...)
1742 • traveled to Paris; became military physician
• on military campaign, developed fever; began to reflect on "thought"
1745 • published The Natural History of the Soul
1746 • forced to leave Paris; returned to Leyden
1747 • published Man a Machine
1748 • forced to leave Leyden; traveled to Berlin
• published Man a Plant, On Happiness
1750 • published Animals More than Machines
1751 • published The Art of Enjoyment, The Little Man in a Long Line
Artist, Musician, and Writer

These three remarkable automata were created between 1768 and 1774 by Swiss watchmaker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790), his son Henri-Louis (1751-1791), and apprentice Jean Frederic Leschot (1746-1824).  All of them move their heads, eyes, and bodies in natural ways.  Their chests expand and contract to simulate respiration.

With over one hundred uniquely notched disks, the Writer can execute forty different written characters in any designated order making it possible to generate whatever message one may wish.

The Artist is programmed to make one of four drawings:  a cherub driving a butterfly-drawn chariot, a dog, a profile of Louis XV, and profiles of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.  The Artist starts each drawing with a general sketch and then adds more detail in subsequent stages of the routine.

The Musician is programmed to play one of five melodies.  Her fingers actually operate the keys on the small organ thus producing the music.

To view brief videos of the Droz automata and read more about them, visit the terrific Automates-Anciens website.

Events in the "Life" of The Chess-Playing Turk

1769 • conceived and created by Hungarian mechanist, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804)
1770 • exhibited at court in Vienna, then toured Europe
1773 • dismantled by von Kempelen
• Karl-Gottlieb von Windisch (1722-1793) wrote news article on Turk
1776 • von Kempelen re-assembled Turk for tour of Russia
1783 • exhibited in Vienna and Paris
• defeated Benjamin Franklin
• von Windisch published his letters praising Turk
1784 • taken on London tour by Johann Maelzel (1772-1838)
• Philipp Thicknesse (1719-1792) published pamphlet exposing Turk as a fraud
1789 • Joseph Friedrich Freiherr zu Racknitz (1744-1818) built duplicate Turk
• published book on its mechanism
1804 • death of von Kempelen
1805 • Maelzel bought Turk and took it on tour
1809 • Turk defeated Napoleon at chess
1817 • in debt, Maelzel fled to America
1822 • after observing carefully many of the Turk's performances, English university student, Robert Willis (1800-1875) published an anonymous article hypothesizing that Turk was operated by hidden operator
1826 • exhibited in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore
1828 • exhibited in Europe
1829 • returned to America
1832 • David Brewster (1781-1868) published Letters on Natural Magic which included analysis of Turk

1834 • former operator sold Turk's secret to French magazine
1835 • defeated poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) in Richmond
1836 • Poe wrote article on Turk mechanism
1854 • destroyed in Philadelphia fire
von Kempelen's Speaking Machine
Early model (1784) of von Kempelen's speaking machine.
The Turk was not the only project occupying von Kempelen's thoughts in 1769.  He envisioned the creation of a machine that could simulate the human voice -- not only replicate its natural tones and general sound quality, but clearly articulate words.

He considered the chess-player a whimsical toy, but viewed the speaking machine as a great scientific and technological contribution.  Although he completed the Turk in six months, he worked on the speaking machine for over twenty years.

After concentrating his efforts on improving the device's ability to reproduce individual sound units found in human speech, von Kempelen recognized the important interpretive role played by the listener.  For a word or phrase to be successfully communicated, it was not enough to generate a sequence of sounds accurately:  adjust the machine's air flow, reconfigure its vibrating reeds, or increase the flexibility of its mouthpiece components.  Understanding those sounds required something more.  What was that something?  Could it be provided mechanically?

Go to:
Readings for Week
Lecture Notes for