The Programmable Duck



Automaton created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739. The program is represented by a drum that you see in the external structure. Similar to cylinders that you can find in most music boxes, the drum has protrusions that indicate positional variation (over time as the drum rotates) for the controlling rods connected to the duck. The duck has appeared in various publications. The formal equivalent of the program is a state machine. Although, in theory, this machine can be classified as infinite (because of the analog nature of the continuous drum rotation), in practice with any type of standardized size on the physical drum protrusions (i.e., cams), the formal machine could be finite. The input to the machine is not clear from the diagram but is likely either weight or spring driven. Memory as for most of these automata, is based on angular position of the cylinder down to the geometric resolution of the cams. The output is the duck, which apparently did not actually go through the details of fully digesting pellets. In some additional browsing, I happened upon Jessica Riskin's essay on artificial life where she mentions many items of historical and cultural relevance, including that weight powered the duck. These automata provide a basis for a wide range of social and philosophical connections among disciplines: mathematics, computing, engineering, arts, and the humanities.