There are many men and women who have played a significant role in the history of mankind with the incredible inventions that they have made. Men such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Joseph Cotton, have made significant contributions and are well-known for the things that they have done. However, there are those that have been incredible innovators in the way that they have impacted the planet, but find themselves as footnotes for the most part in history books. Sadly, this is how Jacques de Vaucanson has been treated in history.
For those who are wondering who Jacques de Vaucanson even is, you are not alone. This is a man who made a significant contribution toward the world of automation, yet has gone unknown in many circles, especially outside of France.
In 1725, Basile Bouchon invented a loom that was semi-automated, meaning that the loom followed a perforated paper tape pattern so that the textile was created in a uniform way every time. This revolutionised the process in textile production, yet it was not perfect. Being semi-automated meant that it still needed two operators to operate the loom, and this was not as efficient as it could have been.
Two years later, Vaucanson began to develop the idea of automation at his workshop. This led to him developing a series of automatons that would serve dinner and clear the table. Interestingly enough, one of the heads of the French government did not find his efforts amusing at all, and his invention was declared “profane.” This led to his workshops destruction.
This did not deter the young inventor. In 1737, he created a life-sized figure that he called the Flute Player. This was a figure that looked like a shepherd who played the tabor and the pipe. He was able to play twelve different songs, quite an amazing creation to say the least.
The next year, he took his creation to the Academie des Sciences to show his work. In Europe at that time, mechanical figures were becoming incredibly popular, and that academics at the university found that his work far exceeded the vast majority of others who were doing this work. They were not only amazed at the intricacy of his pipe playing shepherd, but found that he had created some revolutionary technology that separated himself from others.
A year later he would create two other masterpieces. The Digesting Duck was the most sophisticated of the two, being able to perform over 400 separate paths, as well as being able to flap his wings, digest grain, relieve itself, and drink water.
While this may not seem extraordinary to some, part of his invention was. Vaucanson became the first person to be able to create a flexible rubber tube. This revolutionised the way that things were made because the flexible rubber tube opened many new ideas.
While he was absolutely brilliant in the creations that he made, he bored of them, in 1743, he sold them all and began a new path in his career.
When a person is that good at what they do, they are going to draw attention, and this was the case for Jacques de Vaucanson as well. The King of Prussia wanted the inventor to come and work for his government, but that did not interest Vaucanson. He wanted to work for his own government, and this is exactly what he did.
In 1741, he was appointed as a manufacturer of the silk in France. This means that he was to oversee the manufacturing process of silk in the country. The government was looking for a transformation as France had woefully fallen behind the English and Scottish in the production of silk. While the semi-automated loom had been created in France, these other nations had surpassed the country in terms of production and efficiency, and Vaucanson was charged with finding a way to turn things around. He was more than up to the challenge.
Vaucanson initiated a whole host of changes meant toward making the manufacturing process automated. In 1745, he became the first inventor to create a fully automated loom, using the work of Bouchon and his protégé, Jean Baptiste Falcon, to create his device.
By using rectangular punch cards that were perforated for a specific pattern to be run, an invention of Falcon, he was able to have the loom develop the textile without the need of anyone to assist the machine in its operation.
This was an amazing innovation for several reasons. First and foremost, it made it so that fewer people were needed to complete the task of textile production. A few people could oversee dozens of looms to make sure that they were functioning correctly, whereas Bouchon’s invention required two operators per loom.
In addition, uniformity remained a hallmark of the invention. Textiles were produced to look exactly the same each time, meaning that there was no issue with quality.
The invention quickly catapulted the French to the forefront of textile production. To be honest, Vaucanson’s invention established the French as one of the leaders in design and fashion, and that reputation remains today.
As an interesting side note, his use of the punch card in this automated process had long-lasting effects. When the first computers were created in the 1940s and 1950s, the data that was stored to make the computers to operate using the exact same punch card design and methodology that Vaucanson had developed. Clearly, his ideas were hundreds of years ahead of their time, and it is amazing that he is not more widely known.
Vaucanson's Automated Loom 1745, on display at CNAM, Paris, France
Of course, not everyone was pleased with his invention. The fact that he had created this automated invention meant that several weavers quickly found themselves out of work. They were simply not needed because his invention made them obsolete for the most part.
It is said that when he walked down the street that people who had become unemployed because of him would throw rocks at him. His invention was important but not always popular.
In 1782, Jacques de Vaucanson died while in Paris. His works were left to the King of France and they become the foundation for one of the most important academic institutions in all of France, the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, which was created in Paris a few years after his death.
His original automated inventions were destroyed. It is said that The Flute Player was destroyed during the French Revolution as part of the attack on those who had hurt the common person. Sadly, Vaucanson was viewed in that kind of light.
Other ideas for automation were later designed and perfected so that the French became even dominant in the world of textile production. He was truly an innovator that changed the world for the better in his time and continued to do so more than 200 years later.
It is sad that the name of Jacques de Vaucanson is not held in as high of the esteem of that of Edison or Bell. His name surely belongs there and he may be one of the most important thinkers of the last thousand years