Hunting Vaucanson's Duck

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Hunting Vaucanson's Duck

Megan Buskey

A few questions with WQ contributor Max Byrd.

Read Time:
3m 39sec
InMan as Machine," in the current issue of the WQ, contributing editor Max Byrd describes the French fascination with lifelike mechanical toys during and after the Enlightenment. Below he answers a few questions about his article.
How did you first become interested in the story of French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson and his automates?

I worked my way through my undergraduate studies at Harvard doing magic shows at birthday parties. One day about five years ago, wandering about in Paris, I came across a little basement operation in the Marais, more like a penny arcade than anything else, called the Museum of Magic and Automates. As a magician emeritus, I dug out my five euros and trotted right in. Their automates were not impressive—rather shabby and flea-bitten, if you can say that about toys made of metal. But they were fun and the encounter led me to two other museums of automates in Paris, one a private collection out in the suburb of Neuilly and the other the great Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, where there is a wonderful collection of automates and a small bookstore with much to read about Vaucanson. I was not the person mentioned in the article who bolted and ran when the dulcimer lady started to play, but I find some of the automates distinctly spooky—and therefore interesting.
You argue that Vaucanson’s mechanical duck and his project for Louis XV, the Bleeding Man, reflected a desire to test what it means to be human. Another impetus for mechanical experimentation could be utilitarian rather than philosophical in nature—such as an effort to create robots that can execute tasks more quickly than humans can. Can you elaborate on that element in this story?

Well, Vaucanson and the king claimed they were interested in medical research, hence their efforts to make the blood flow in the automaton through rubber veins and arteries and their hope he would stand and walk. Partly this was true. Other scientists of the era had similar ambitions. But there was also a psychological dimension. Partly they were seeing their own ailments in the Bleeding Man and wondering how to cure themselves. But there was also something daring and irresistible about defying the Church. They shared some of the same motives as Dr. Frankenstein.

On the other hand, Vaucanson was actually a gifted inventor of practical devices. He made a number of extremely useful tools, especially when he worked as director of the Silk Manufactures in Lyon. There he devised machines that were efficient, tireless, and in some ways intelligent—essentially assembly line automates. The conservatoire has a number of these on display outside the Theater of Automates. As I say in the article, Vaucanson really helped to usher in the Industrial Revolution in Europe.
How has writing this article informed the direction of your work?

Hah! I liked the material so much I wrote a novel about a reporter in Paris in 1926 who comes across Vaucanson’s duck—his rival is the beautiful (of course) young Elsie Short, who works as a doll hunter for Thomas Edison. (True—Edison wanted to find the perfect European doll so he could install a tiny phonograph in its head and have it sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)  It was great fun to write. It comes out in the fall of 2012. We haven’t fixed a title yet. I wanted to call it The Sh**ting Duck, but this was inexplicably rejected. Right now it’s called Rue du Dragon, after the street where the action takes place (and on the theory that anything with “dragon” in the title this year will sell). I would welcome suggestions, however.

Have there been any false sightings of the Bleeding Man or any notable efforts to find him?

Only in libraries! The best single account is by British journalist Gaby Woods in her book Edison’s Eve (2002). There is a standard biography of Vaucanson in French and a certain number of academic articles in this country, mostly written in the impenetrable prose of the university. I don’t know of any serious efforts to find the Bleeding Man. I myself, however, do regard any passing duck with special attention.