World’s Strangest

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The Pooping Duck Automaton

than two centuries ago, French engineer Jacques Vaucanson built the Digesting
automaton, a mechanical duck that could eat and digest grains,
and then … poop them out!

The 18th century was the golden age for a type of self-moving mechanical
device called the automaton, and Vaucanson
was the era’s most famous creator. When he was 18 years old, Vaucanson
built automata that served dinner and cleared tables for guests. Later,
he built a breathing, flute-playing automaton, as well as one that could
play the fife-and-drum. But Vaucanson’s most popular creation was undoubtedly
the defecating duck
he built in 1733-1734.

Vaucanson’s gold-plated copper duck could not only move and quack like
a duck, but it could eat like one, too. The duck swallowed kernels of
grain, and as Vaucanson explained, digested the food in its chemical stomach,
then poop them out through a mechanical sphincter.

(L) Vaucanson, from Illustrierte Geschichte der Medizin/Richard Toellner
(M) Photograph of lost original or imitation in ruined state/Musée
du Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris
(R) Reproduction in Musée
des Automates de Grenoble

There was no shortage of viewers, who each paid a week’s wage to see
the duck. Voltaire even mused that "without the shitting duck of
Vaucanson, you will have nothing to remind you of the glory of France."

After Vaucanson became a rich man, he sold all of his automata to collectors
and the duck was soon lost to history … until it was found languishing
in a pawnbroker’s attic more than a hundred years later. The discoverer
brought the duck to a magician named Jean-Eugène
(who’s now considered the father of modern magic, and
from whom Houdini took his name). Robert-Houdan found out that the duck
was actually a clever hoax: Vaucanson had built a special chamber inside
it to store a preparation of dyed green breadcrumbs that people thought
was duck poop!

Source: Edison’s
Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life

by Gaby Wood

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