A Swimming Swan, A Defecating Duck, and Other Amazing Avian Automatons

Guest Post By Phoebe Darqueling of the Steampunk Journal

You can’t deny that the showstoppers in the Collaborative Writing Challenge’s newest release are the giant automatons. The struggle over who controls the titular “Army of Brass” and fear of their revival powers the entire story, but they aren’t the only mechanical marvels in the book. The 21 international authors who came together to pen this tale also created several different types of artificial animals to act as spies and messengers, so I thought it would be fun to do some research into real-life avian automatons.

The First Robot was a Pigeon?

The word “robot” comes from a Czech playwright in the 1920s, and is derived from “forced labor” or “drudgery” in his language. The term was first applied to human beings who were being made to act like machines. By contrast, “automaton” comes from Greek and means “self-acting machine,” which lacks the inherent connotation of “labor” and grants more agency to the creation. Depending on who you read, the “Flying Pigeon” built in ancient Greece could fit either definition.

Though no physical evidence remains, the first literature that describes something like a robot comes from around 350 BCE. Archytas of Tarentum was a philosopher who was cozy with the likes of Plato (and by some accounts, even saved his life). Like so many learned men of his age, he dabbled in everything from mathematics to strategy and astronomy to music. He may have been the “father of robotics” long before the word existed.

Without any surviving plans for his “Flying Pigeon” device, it’s hard to pinpoint the precise nature of what he built. What we do know is that it was made of wood and had two sets of wings. By some accounts, these wings could flap, but it actually achieved flight by use of a pulley system. Other reconstructions imagine it looked more like a solid projectile that flew independently but lacked any realistic birdlike qualities besides its shape. It was propelled by either compressed air or a small boiler, and according to some, it could fly several hundred meters. Whatever its true nature, we know the ancient Greeks who saw it found it impressive.

Further reading: The Steam-Powered Pigeon of Archytas and The Flying Pigeon of Archytas

Heron of Alexandria

No pun intended, but another Greek inventor with birds on the brain was a geometer named Heron (sometimes called Hero). Some of his most important works didn’t enter the European mainstream until 1896 when his 3-volume masterpiece called Metrica was found in modern day Turkey. So you have him to thank for figuring out how to calculate the volume of a solid object.

For our exploration of mechanical birds, we have to turn instead to his treatise on “pneumatics.” In it, he described a veritable menagerie of puppets, coin-operated devices, and singing birds. They moved by way of flowing water, which in turn moved air through whistles and tubes. The birds had to remain connected to a much larger base, but they captured the imaginations of inventors to come.

Further reading: Heron of Alexandria and A Brief History of Robotic Birds

Da Vinci’s Obsession with Flight

In the early 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci published his Codice sul volo degli uccelli (Codex on the Flight of Birds). This around the same time he painted The Mona Lisa. Just like Hero, many of da Vinci’s written works were lost or distributed among individual collectors until the 1800s. The codex contained around 500 sketches dealing with flying machines and animals, as well as speculation about the nature of air itself. He was fascinated with the idea of humans achieving flight, as well as how to create war machines like a giant crossbow. Anyone who wanted to build an automaton that could soar like a real bird would need to consult this treatise.

Further Reading: Leonardo da Vinci and Flight

One Swan A-Swimming…

One of the most lifelike mechanical birds ever built dazzles viewers to this day at The Bowes Museum in England. The “Silver Swan” was the brainchild of clockmaker John Joseph Merlin and jeweler James Cox. It has fascinated viewers since 1773 when it resided in Cox’s Mechanical Museum and was later displayed at the Paris Fair in 1867. Shortly after, it was described by Mark Twain in his travelogue “Innocents Abroad” in 1869.

Through an ingenious assortment of spring, levers, and glass rods, the swan appears to preen and swim in a pool that it shares with some mechanical fish. It even bends its realistic beak to the water and “eats” one of them. The tranquil scene is accompanied by a song played on a music box built into the device.

But don’t just take my word for it, there are plenty of videos like this one on YouTube.

The Defecating Duck

Before the Silver Swan, automaton enthusiast Jacques de Vaucanson brought a gold-plated duck into the world. He’d already mastered making robots that could wait tables and play the flute, a feat he achieved by actually creating an artificial throat that contracted and a moveable metal tongue to regulate the flow of air from the three sets of bellows that acted as lungs. This device was both sophisticated and temperamental, so when attendance at his exhibit flagged, he created a clockwork canard.

It was the same size as a real duck, but like Heron’s birds, it required a large pedestal to hide the full inner workings. It could quack, drink, settle in for a nap and even swallow food. Then, through a series of chemical processes, the food would be “digested” and come out the duck’s posterior. He published schematics of the artificial digestive tract, which later proved to be a hoax. The “pellets” that came out of the duck were preloaded and no chemicals were involved in its bowels.

Further reading:  Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life

Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin

Vaucanson’s joke wasn’t discovered until more than 100 years after the duck gained fame. Despite being a big hit at parties, the duck disappeared for several decades until it was unearthed in an attic and repaired by this Swiss clockmaker. He repaired the duck, but also made several mechanisms of his own.

He was a fan of songbirds himself, and spent quite a lot of time perched in trees so he could hear and imitate their songs. He made a charming pair of automatons, a woman and a canary, that worked together. The wind-up woman cranked a device that looked like a “serinette” which was used to train real canaries to sing. This was a popular pastime, especially in France at the time. The clockwork canary would then imitate the song, but do it wrong. The woman cranked again, and the canary’s performance improved. This made it seems as if the bird was actually learning.

A fun little aside, the magician Harry Houdini, who also loved to incorporate elaborate machines in his acts, took his name from him.

Further Reading: Biography of Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin and 7 Early Robots and Automatons

Mechanical Birds in Army of Brass

Unlike the real automatons of the steam era, the birds in this novel are capable of not only independent flight, but of allowing the “pilot” to see through their eyes and speak through them from great distances. But being a fantasy where metal speaks to people and automatons are moved through thoughts, we didn’t think it would be a problem to take some liberties. The result is a means for our heroes to communicate from multiple locations and hints at the final struggle for control at the end of the story. Check out the launch announcement or read Margaret’s review to find out more! Can’t get enough mechanical birds? Check out this gallery over at Steampunk Journal.

Order your e-book copy of Army of Brass for $.99 before May 13. 10% of the Collaborative Writing Challenge’s proceeds go to the charity IBBY, which promotes literacy in children.

We also have a giveaway going on, so don’t miss your chance enter to win e-books from our Army of Brass contributing authors.

Blog tour stops:

4/13 – A Sneak Peek at Chapter 1 by Jason Pere
4/14 – Launch announcement
4/15 – Interview with contributor Jason Pere
4/16 – Memes in the Making
4/17 – Excerpt by Jim O’Loughlin
4/18 – The Pros and Cons of Collaborative Writing
4/19 – Interview with contributor Jean Grabow
4/20 – Collaboration is the Future by Kathrin Hutson
4/21 – Excerpt by Michael Cieslak
4/22 – Excerpt by Dorothy Emry
4/23 – Review by Penny Blake
4/24 – Character interview of Captain Jack Davenport
4/24 – What’s in a Name? Steampunk Before “Steampunk”
4/25 – Steampunk: The First 10 Years
4/25 – Interview with contributor Jeremiah Rickert
4/26 – Steampunk: The Second Decade
4/27 – Steampunk: The Last 10 Years
4/27 – Excerpt by Phoebe Darqueling
4/30 – Review by Victoria L. Szulc
5/1 – Prim & Proper? Not These Steam Age Murderesses by Phoebe Darqueling
5/2 – Excerpt by E.A. Hennessy
5/4 – Interview with contributor Johnny Caputo

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One Response to A Swimming Swan, A Defecating Duck, and Other Amazing Avian Automatons

  1. jjmcgaffey says:

    The link to the giveaway goes to the setup page – the actual giveaway is here https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/0fc932c81/?

    I bought the book. Looks interesting!

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