The First Robots

from the YA nonfiction book Mighty Robots


       Jacques de Vaucanson was born in Grenoble, France in 1709, the son of a master glove maker. He was interested in mechanical devices from an early age and astounded his parents and neighbors by repairing their broken clocks and watches. He built his first clock just from observing one in the church where his mother went to confession.

       When Jacques was only seven, his father died and Jacques was sent away to a monastery to study. Although Jacques was a stubborn and somewhat moody boy, the math teacher at the monastery soon recognized his talent and helped him in his studies. Later, Jacques studied at the Jesuit College in Grenoble and eventually met a famous surgeon who encouraged him to construct machines that would mimic important bodily functions such as blood circulation, breathing, and digestion.

       After leaving the college, de Vaucanson fell ill and lay in bed for four months. During that time he had a fever, and dreamed of an android (a robot resembling a man) that could play the flute. When he rose from his bed, he began making elaborate drawings of the various parts. He had craftsmen make the pieces, then assembled the flute player himself. It was the size of an adult musician and could play twelve different songs. The remarkable thing about the flute player was that it didn’t just appear to play the flute, it really did.

       The musician, made mostly of wood and cardboard, blew into the mouthpiece and played different notes by moving its fingers to open and close holes on an ordinary flute, just as a human flute player does. The fingers and lips had leather tips so that they could better seal the holes. There was nothing special about the flute; if it were replaced by any other, standard-sized flute, the automaton still worked.

       The flute player’s breath was supplied by nine bellows connected to the mouth by pipes, and the lips and a metal tongue regulated the speed and force of the air. A wooden cylinder with little pegs sticking from its surface controlled the player’s movements. The automaton could be “re-programmed” to play a different song by changing the cylinder. The whole thing was powered by a series of weights and pulleys, just as the clocks of that time were. Much of the mechanism was hidden inside the pedestal on which the flute player sat.

       It took de Vaucanson four years to finish the flute player, after which he put it on display in a hotel in Paris, where thousands of people came to watch it. The price of admission was very high—a week’s wages for a manual laborer. Still, the show was a great success.

      De Vaucanson went on to build a tambourine player and then perhaps his greatest automaton, a duck. Like the flute player, the duck’s movements were driven by weights and gears hidden in the pedestal on which the duck stood. The power was transmitted through pulleys passing through the duck’s legs.

       The duck could flap its wings, squat or stand, and move its neck from side to side. But its most impressive trick was its ability to dabble. Presented with a bowl of water with some corn floating in it, it could pick up a kernel with its bill, tilt its head back, and swallow it. Every so often it would poop out a small, green pellet.

       De Vaucanson quickly grew bored with his automatons, but they brought him such fame that in 1741 he was appointed to the position of inspector of the manufacture of silk in France—a very important industry. At the time, weavers in France were losing work to their competitors in England and Scotland. De Vaucanson was charged with reforming the country’s silk-manufacturing process. He decided that the best way to improve the industry was to automate it—that is, turn as much of the manufacturing process as possible over to machines.

       When De Vaucanson was assigned his task, looms, the machines that weavers used to make cloth, were already semi automated. As with the duck and the flute player, the actions of early automated looms were controlled by pegged cylinders. Later, loops of paper dotted with patterns of holes replaced the cylinders. These were followed by flat cards very much like the punch cards that would control electronic computers 200 years later.

      De Vaucanson added a ratcheting mechanism to advance these cards automatically. Now the weaver had only to power the loom; the punch cards controlled all of its motions. The actions of the loom, in turn, controlled the pattern on the cloth it produced. As long as the pattern of holes on the punch card was correct, the loom turned out cloth without any errors in the weave. And it did it far more quickly than a weaver working with a couple of assistants could have. These assistants were among the first people to lose their jobs to machines.