10 Historical Robots

A Dandy Digesting Duck
A diagram of the Vaucanson duck’s inner workings © Bettmann/Corbis

In 1738, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson unveiled his masterpiece automaton. No, it wasn't a tambourine player or a flutist, both of which he'd created in earlier years. It was a duck. One that ate grain from a hand ... and then promptly pooped.

The digesting duck was no toy. It had more than 400 moving parts in each wing. It could stretch, bend its neck, lie down, drink water and eat grain. Then, after a few moments, it would defecate.

Vaucanson led people to believe that the digestion process was realistic, but in reality, a compartment in the duck was preloaded with poo before each demonstration. When the truth came out, a minor stink erupted.

Nevertheless, his gold-plated copper duck was a substantial scientific and mechanical work. Sadly, the duck disappeared at some point, never to be seen again.