The transcendent moment in the life of the mechanician Jacques Vaucanson (1709–1782) came in 1738 when he amazed the savants and the curious of Paris with a display of his three mechanical marvels, the Flûteur (Flute Player), the Canard (Duck), and the Tambourinaire (Drummer). The Flûteur, in its outward appearance, duplicated in wood an Antoine Coysevox marble sculpture, well known at the time, prominently displayed in the Tuileries Gardens, and representing a life-size faun sitting on a rock and playin-g a transverse flute. This kind of flute, similar to our present-day concert instrument, was something of a novelty in the first half of the eighteenth century, when what we call a recorder was still the standard concert flute. What was inside Vaucanson’s Flûteur was even more novel: a complicated arrangement of axles, cords, pulleys, levers, chains, bellows, pipes, and valves. When activated by his creator, the faun’s mechanical musculature caused his fingers to move up or down, uncovering or covering the airholes of the flute; his mouth to emit a stream of air, blowing with greater or lesser force across the mouth of the flute; his tongue to go up or down, interrupting the stream of air or allowing it to continue; and his lips to open or close or push out or pull back, forming different embouchures. The mechanician had perfectly harmonized all of these movements so that the Flûteur played the notes exactly as a human or faun flautist would. Because the transverse flute was still relatively unknown, little had been written concerning its technique, requiring Vaucanson, who was not a musician, to discover it for himself, for his satyric creation, and for future generations of flute teachers. The Flûteur played not just individual notes, of course, but whole pieces of music. “Indeed,” reported the Mercure de France,
In order to produce the successive notes of a piece, Vaucanson employed a rotating cylinder studded with pegs, each of which triggered a particular movement of the automaton’s anatomy. Such cylinders, on a larger scale, had been used in carillons and mechanical organs since the fifteenth century and, on a smaller scale, were to be used in music boxes from the late eighteenth century onward. The whole apparatus was driven by a weight, as clocks had been driven since the fourteenth century.
One has the pleasure of being able to listen to this mechanical figure for more than a quarter of an hour, as it performs like a master fourteen airs, each of them different in character, in range of notes, and in tempo.
Variations, so attractive on this instrument, have not been omitted, and everything, including crescendi, diminuendi, and even sustained notes, is executed with the most perfect good taste.
Vaucanson’s Canard, likewise life-size, raised itself up on its legs, flapped its feathered wings, moved its head from side to side, extended its neck, and quacked. It also dabbled realistically with its bill in water, drank, and took seed out of one’s hand. The mechanical viscera inside this automaton, however, heralded an advance in naturalism over that in the Flûteur. It produced an imitation not just of outward bodily movements but also of the processes of digestion. Shortly after swallowing food and water, the Canard expelled its waste with an authenticity that could only have been admired by the visitors to the exhibition hall.
The third figure, the Tambourinaire, represented a shepherd of Provence playing two instruments indigenous to that region of southern France. With one hand, the shepherd beat a tambourin, or small drum, while with the other he held to his mouth a galoubet, a kind of small recorder, or old-style flute. In the exhibition prospectus, Vaucanson justified his construction and presentation of this second mechanical flute player:
At first glance one would imagine that the difficulties to overcome were less than in the Flûteur; but, without wanting to overrate the one at the expense of the other, I would ask the reader to recall that the instrument in question is among the most intractable and the most inherently out of tune; that it was necessary to give expression to a flute with only three holes, in which the holes are sometimes half-covered, and in which everything depends on the force of the air passing through them; that it was thus necessary to produce a variety of windspeeds, in such rapid succession that the ear can barely follow them, and to give tongue articulation to every note, even sixteenth-notes, without which this instrument has no appeal.
Vaucanson’s automata struck a major chord with the public. After he had exhibited them in a rented hall in the Hôtel de Longueville, one long block south of the Café de la Régence, and perhaps at the annual Saint-Germain Fair on the Left Bank, he took them on a tour of France and Italy. A few years later, in 1743, he sold them to some entrepreneurs from Lyon, who toured with them for nearly a decade, showing them throughout Europe. Admission was always charged at these exhibitions and the automata appear to have brought in considerable revenue.
They also brought recognition to Vaucanson from the scientific community. The Académie Royale des Sciences sent an official delegation to the exhibition hall and following the delegation’s report voted to award him a certificate of commendation. The Académie was not only a prestigious group of scientists but also a quasi-governmental body. Its coveted commendations frequently led to an official position or pension, as happened in Vaucanson’s case. To crown his success, King Louis XV also saw and admired his masterpieces.
Thus, in 1740 Vaucanson was appointed inspector general of silk works, the silk industry being a logical place for him to put his mechanical talents to good use. Even though textile production in the eighteenth century was still labor-intensive, differences in technology already contributed significantly to differences in quality and efficiency, and because of its inferior machinery the French silk industry had fallen behind its English and Piedmontese rivals. Vaucanson spent the next forty years striving valiantly, but for the most part vainly, to help it catch up. He fulfilled his early promise of genius, inventing the first automatic loom (later perfected by Jacquard), the first automatic mechanism for weaving patterns, a new type of silk reeler and a new silk thrower (two machines involved in spinning silk thread), and a new calender (a kind of mangle to smooth finished cloth). But he lacked an attendant power of persuasion, and for a while the only thing he succeeded in conveying to either masters or workers in the French silk industry was that his machines threatened their livelihoods. The radically conservative canuts of Lyon, the industry’s capital, chased him out of their city in 1744 and probably would have killed him if they had been able to catch him. On the whole, the attempt he made to reform the silk industry proceeded very slowly and remained incomplete.
But Vaucanson’s fame and fortune survived the vicissitudes of his career as inspector general. Voltaire praised him in his long poem Discours en vers sur l’homme (Discourse in Verse on Man, 1738):
Tandis que, d’une main stérilement vantée,La Mettrie also compared him to Prometheus in his landmark of materialist philosophy, L’Homme machine (Man a Machine, 1748). The Académie Royale des Sciences inducted him into its ranks in 1746 and frequently called upon him to pass judgment on the inventions of others. Jean-François Marmontel asked him to construct a mechanical asp for his play Cléopâtre (1750). The play was not a success, but the automaton was: Its hiss prompted a member of the audience to remark approvingly, “I agree with the asp.” 
Le hardi Vaucanson, rival de Prométhée,
Semblait, de la nature imitant les ressorts,
Prendre le feu des cieux pour animer les corps.
With a hand on which all praise falls sterile,
Vaucanson the bold, Prometheus’ rival,
Took, while imitating nature’s projects,
Heaven’s fire to animate cold objects.
The marquis de Condorcet’s official eulogy of Vaucanson to the Académie predicts that his name “will be famous for a long time.” At the time of his death in 1782, and for many years previous, his home had been the opulent Hôtel Mortagne on the outskirts of Paris, where he also had a large workshop. As Condorcet explained, “He believed that works useful to the nation should be paid for by it, and he used to say this frankly; if someone raised the objection that he already had a respectable fortune, he responded that others who did nothing useful were much better paid.” He bequeathed to the government the contents of his workshop: his inventions, including many unrelated to silk production; his drawings, such as one set representing the gearing for a differential; and his tools, some of which themselves were inventions. This collection was one of three gathered together during the Revolution to furnish the new Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (Arts and Crafts Conservatory), still in existence today.
In his ascent, Vaucanson never got entirely beyond the reach of the three automata he had constructed in his twenties. Condorcet’s prediction that his name “will be famous for a long time” concluded: “among the vulgar, for the ingenious productions that were his youthful amusements; among the enlightened, for the useful works that were his lifelong occupation.” And a friend, whose letter to the editor the Journal de Paris published as an obituary notice of Vaucanson, complained on behalf of his memory: “I was surprised to read, Messieurs, in a periodical dated 23 November, the strange and laconic eulogy of the late M. de Vaucanson. The editor had reduced it to this: ‘He immortalized himself through his automata.’ When one knows nothing else about a man so famous, one should limit oneself to giving the date of his death, and pass over the rest in silence.” It is clear that Vaucanson’s contemporaries regarded his automata as masterpieces, but whether they were early or mature masterpieces, and whether masterpieces of imagination or of craftsmanship or of learning, was debatable. In its report on their exhibition the Mercure de France referred equivocally to “this curious branch of mathematics.”  How did Vaucanson himself regard them?
There is evidence to suggest that when he began working on them he had something a little different in mind from what he eventually produced. While still a child in Grenoble he had constructed a clock, and, according to Condorcet, “some automaton-priests that duplicated a few of the ecclesiastical offices,” but his parents steered him toward more intellectual pursuits, sending him first to Lyon to study theology, then to Paris to study medicine. It was probably as a medical student that he discovered and became interested in anatomies mouvantes. “Moving anatomies” were working models of parts of the human body whose use many seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century physicians advocated for purposes of instruction and research. Some physiologists believed that if one constructed an accurate working model of a bodily organ, one could learn things about how the organ functioned in a living being by experimenting on the model. In the early 1730s, before he exhibited his soon-to-be-famous automata in Paris, Vaucanson showed one or two of them in the towns of Brittany and Normandy, together with “a machine containing several automata in which the natural functions of several animals are simulated through the action of fire, air, and water.” This oracular description appears in a contemporary contract and lacks further elaboration. In 1741, the year Vaucanson became involved with the silk industry, the Académie des Beaux-Arts of Lyon recorded in its minutes that “M. Vaucanson…informed the Académie of a project that he had conceived, to construct an automaton figure that simulated in its movements the animal functions, the circulation of the blood, respiration, digestion, the operation of muscles, tendons, nerves, etc.” In 1762, he began to work on the more modest project of a machine that would simulate just the circulation of the blood, using rubber tubes for veins. But this project, too, remained unrealized, because of inadequacies in contemporary rubber technology.
Thus, Vaucanson may have originally conceived his celebrated automata as anatomies mouvantes. He borrowed heavily to fund his work on them. Persistent financial difficulties may have led him eventually to alter his course away from the purely scientific and toward something with greater popular appeal. The finished automata certainly had popular appeal, but their builder, in his exhibition prospectus, emphasized the science. The twenty-three-page prospectus began with five pages describing the physics of sound generation in the transverse flute. Apropos of the Provençal flute, the galoubet, he boasted, “I have also made discoveries that one would never have suspected.” For example: “The muscles of one’s chest make an effort equivalent to fifty-six pounds of pressure, since I had to produce this same force of air, that is, a stream of air pushed by this force or this pressure, in order to generate a high B, which is the highest note this instrument can reach.” Joining a debate among contemporary physiologists, Vaucanson explained of his Canard that “the food is digested there as it is in real animals, by means of dissolution and not by trituration, as some doctors claim.”  But as we have seen, for example in the remarks of Condorcet and in the attitude of the periodical press, Vaucanson’s own claim that his automata represented a contribution to science was only partly digestible.