The Impossible Bleeding Man: On the History and Mythology of Artificial Life

by Michael Peck

Sometime in 1739 King Louis XV paid a special visit to a duck being displayed in Paris.

The inventor of the duck, Jacques de Vaucanson, was regarded as an inventor of mechanical life par excellence, someone who’d been lauded by the unimpressible Voltaire and by Denis Diderot (the latter spoke of him in superlatives in both D’Alembert’s Dream and again in his Encyclopedie’s section on automata). He’d charmed imperial salons with his 1737 flautist and a number of other curiosities, including a tambourine player, and a calligrapher.

Vaucanson would load the creature with tiny pellets, and it was these the duck defecated to wild applause.

The Mechanical Duck was his greatest invention yet. An intricate mechanism of cams and levers set the animal in motion, making it waddle like an actual canard. Each wing was composed of approximately 400 individuated parts, the whole apparatus made of copper. “The Duck with Feathers”, as the showman advertised it, splashed around in a small pool and pecked grain out of an audience member’s hand. Ingenious tubes aided the Duck’s digestion, but before each show Vaucanson would load the creature with tiny pellets, and it was these the duck defecated to wild applause.

automata duck

A fake shitting animal was a national treasure, said Voltaire facetiously, and without it “…you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.” Soon, the Duck would be a fixture in parlors and cabinets of wonder across much of Europe. With this and other mechanical contraptions, Vaucanson’s aim was to synthesize beast and machine. He’d even had wrapped human flesh around his flute-player’s hands to smooth out its awkward movements, while a dog’s tongue waggled in his Talking Head, making a daring first step into cybernetics. One of his prototypes was called “profane” by a distinguished guest, who then had Vaucanson’s laboratory destroyed. His child handwriter was so marvelous that the Inquisition impounded it, believing it the result of casual necromancy.

So Louis had come to the exhibit with a question that would have been ridiculous to anyone besides the inventor. Taking Vaucanson away from the crowd, he inquired whether it was possible to construct an entirely artificial man.

Before Vaucanson, legends about automated beings recur throughout the ancient and the medieval worlds:

-4th Century B.C.E.: Archytas of Tarentum, Greek Pythagorean philosopher, gives steam-powered flight to a wooden pigeon.

-circa 150 B.C.E: Before unveiling the very first vending machine and robot theater, Hero of Alexandria fashions a moving body with a non-detachable head.

-12th-13th Centuries: Robert Grosseteste designs the first of a flurry of brazen heads that could “telle of suche thinges as befelle”; the churchman Albertus Magnus has a brass figure whose demoniac speech so infuriates his student Thomas Aquinas, that the latter smashes it to bits; later, Roger Bacon and his assistant, a Friar Bungy, are accused of cavorting with Satan, who’s allegedly taught them how to make a bronze or brass head on a pedestal that could dispense prophecies; when they miss their opportunity to summon the devil, the head immediately explodes.

-13th Century: A quartet of musicians serenades the viewer from a small boat, as invented by the Persian clockwork manufacturer El Jazari; Giovanni Fontana, a self-styled magus, produces miniature clockwork devils and creatures given movement by rocket propulsion.

-15th Century: In Japan, Hisashige Tanaka, (aka “The Gadget Wizard” and founder of what would become Toshiba) builds an android archer.

-1494: Leonardo da Vinci devises an empty, automated suit of armor.

-1562: When the son of King Philip of Spain is near death, the monarch calls for Diego de Alcala to be placed in his son’s bed; the holy man has been dead for close to a century; nonetheless, the decree is carried out. In the morning, the heir-apparent is cured, claiming that the monk spoke to him in the night. Philip hires a watchmaker to construct an android based on the monk’s likeness: the wood and iron faux-monk can walk, hold up a cross and open and close his mouth like a nutcracker.

-1649: As a child, Louis XIV is given a toy carriage with synchronized horses and footmen.

-circa 1670: Athanasius Kircher, inventor of the megaphone, introduces various clockwork figures, including a statue that listens and speaks

From the late 17th and early 18th centuries, self-correcting machines combined the Enlightenment-era pursuits of magic, mechanics, spectacle and philosophy into a unified field theory. Even before the automata-boom, mechanical tinkering was being used to explain nature and the universe. Rene Descartes, pretty much the founder of Continental philosophy, asserted in Treatise on Man (1629–1633) that the animal kingdom bears a closer affinity to clockwork than to divine handiwork. (Descartes was an early adapter of mechanical objects. He supposedly fashioned a wind-up doll and called it Francine after his beloved dead child. During an ocean voyage to visit Queen Christina of Sweden in 1649, the superstitious seamen and their captain tossed Francine overboard, blaming her for the turbulent weather they’d been experiencing.) But the philosopher’s theories, tinged with impiety, reached a blasphemous apotheosis in the hands of Julian Ofray De La Mettrie, who said bluntly that man was nothing more impressive than a refined automaton.

Rene Descartes asserted that the animal kingdom bears a closer affinity to clockwork than to divine handiwork.

La Mettrie was a one-man Enlightenment. Where others vacillated between faith and reason, he plunged in headfirst, refuting the soul and having the audacity to call man a “living representation of perpetual motion.” The Histoire naturelle de l’âme (Natural History of the Soul) was an opening salvo against god and superstition, exploring a hallucinatory state as the result of physical processes. Even in the relatively free-thinking Netherlands, La Mettrie’s materialist theories caused a scandal, forcing him to flee the country.

In Holland he published his 1747 magnum opus, l’Homme Machine (Man, A Machine), one of the most influential materialist tracts of its era. Man was a mechanical being, La Mettrie stated, not ruled by god, but by his own mechanistic impulses. Copies of l’Homme Machine were quickly consigned to the bonfire, and once again La Mettrie was consigned into self-exile with his heresies. This time La Mettrie journeyed to Berlin, where he was welcomed by another iconoclast, Frederick the Great.

In a roundabout way, Louis was asking Vaucanson to bring La Mettrie’s condemned ideas into practice.

Louis had a few reasons for wanting a man-machine to be built. Like Frederick in Germany, Louis embodied the scientific worldview of the Enlightenment, and the mascots of science seemed to be ever more complicated machines. Many scientists and men of letters denigrated mechanicians as mere “toymakers,” but Louis sided with the scholar Hermann von Helmholtz; for them, automata were a means of peeking into the enigmas of human biology.

At age 5 Louis ascended the throne in 1715, after a series of familial tragedies. Mechanical toys offered a respite from the traumas of his childhood, and his fondness for automata never waned during his topsy-turvy reign. He’d always been sickly and frail, and his attention turned naturally to medical research, a wholly neglected field when he assumed power. Louis called on legions of quacks, homeopathists and pseudo-scientists throughout France to palliate his ailments. Probably in this way, he came across the work of Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, a cantankerous surgeon whose interest in biological simulation renewed Vaucanson’s own dabblings in automation.

The proceedings of the Academie de Rouen notes the attributes of the model, and concludes with, “God forgive us, all that follows from him.”

Le Cat himself tinkered with androids, too. In 1739 he diagrammed a “living anatomy” that would feature respiration and “the secretions.” The proceedings of the Academie de Rouen notes the attributes of the model, and concludes with, “God forgive us, all that follows from him.” But Le Cat’s intention for the machine wasn’t just to be mind-blowing and showy; it was to unravel the human body’s design. Together Le Cat and Vaucanson worked on the rudimentary android, but Vaucanson tired of the collaboration and set out to make his own automata.

Activities of the blood was an all but unknown process up to this period; doubtful physicians engaged in bloodletting — a practice that had more in common with Russian Roulette than anything provably ameliorative. At that point, practicing medicine was guesswork and accepted myth. The king set out to rectify the often deadly fads in physiology, and to do this would require analyzing circulation. Instead of experimentation on a living person and risking a public outcry, Louis hatched his audacious plan to replicate human functions in an automaton. And there was no one more suited than Vaucanson to assemble the king’s android.

Man-making belonged to the domain of god, and to preserve the secrecy of their project — while also bringing the inventor’s considerable proficiency with machines into his employ — Vaucanson was installed as the Inspector of Silk Manufacturing in the city of Lyon. The country lagged behind England in that industry, and between 1745 and 1750, Vaucanson practically invented the assembly-line, and for that matter, kickstarted the Industrial Revolution. His innovations in weaving led directly to the Jacquard Loom, and infuriated the many hundreds of workers who were being replaced by mechanical levers. In addition to threatening notions of the soul with his inventions, Vaucanson was now putting livelihoods at risk as well. Unrest followed close on the heels of these modernizations, and weavers who hadn’t been made redundant went on strike throughout the city. Vaucanson was violently attacked in the streets and forced to flee to Paris disguised as a monk.

Meanwhile, he was at work on the king’s “L’homme saignant” — the Bleeding Man. Using an intermediary, the Controller-General Baptiste Bertin, to funnel jewels and gold to Vaucanson, Louis kept their arrangement hidden from the Church and the public. Besides the three of them, the undertaking was absolutely secret, known by a few of the king’s ministers and Vaucanson’s assistants, making the project into something quite similar to a cabal.

For two dedicated hypochondriacs like Louis and Vaucanson, the Bleeding Man was a representation of the ideal anatomy: a being crafted without the frailties of human existence.

He was given total autonomy; in exchange, the king stipulated that the automaton should mimic human bodily functions as closely as possible; it should masticate and digest, breath, bleed. Later, when Louis got bouts of vertigo and could barely move, he ordered that the Bleeding Man be able to stand up and walk around. Consciousness, it would seem, was to be the only human trait not programmed into the schematics for their hybrid. Transparent wax would coat the automaton, its organs and blood-flow exposed to observers. As Vaucanson envisioned it, their almost-human mannequin was a combination of metal and glass, powered by clockwork and hydraulics.

For two dedicated hypochondriacs like Louis and Vaucanson, the Bleeding Man was a representation of the ideal anatomy: a being crafted without the frailties of human existence.

But the artificial model was likewise running into glitches. Vaucanson’s trouble involved a lack of suitable material. Wood and other common materials had sufficed for his previous showpieces, but this new machine was an order of magnitude removed from tambourine players and ducks, and more on par with resurrecting a golem. A malleable, yet rigid agent had to be procured for the arteries and veins of the Bleeding Man. Adding to Vaucanson’s difficulties was the utter secrecy of the undertaking. He could not correspond with other scientists for suggestions.

Rubber was the solution to Vaucanson’s first problem. Charles Marie de la Condamine, a scientist and explorer, had found the substance in the South American jungles a few years earlier. Condamine returned to France with a sample of cahuchu, as Amazon tribes called it, delivering a paper on its properties to the Academie Royale des Sciences in 1736. The limited supply by then being imported to France, however, was not enough for Vaucanson’s purposes, and he asked the king for more. Louis launched a surreptitious rubber-gathering voyage to Guyana, then under French control, to bring as much rubber to Vaucanson as he desired.

David Brewster’s 1832 Letters on Natural Magic offers an altered version: “It was agreed that a skillful anatomist should proceed to Guiana to superintend the construction of the blood-vessels, and the king not only approved it but had given orders for, the voyage.” Instead of rubber being imported to France, the king would deploy a scientist into the jungles to make the artificial man’s innards and these would then be sent by steamer back to Vaucanson. Regardless, the Guyana expedition was embarked on and a king-sponsored ship crossed the ocean for the sake of the Bleeding Man’s completion. As with Le Cat’s blueprint, Vaucanson also hoped that rubber would allow him to mold vocal chords for his contraption: The Bleeding Man, as he fancied him, would also be endowed with speech.

For sundry reasons, the plot to import rubber, and hence the automaton itself, was a failure. The Bleeding Man was at no point a very real feasibility. That didn’t stop the crowned-head of a world power and one of the great scientists of his age from their conspiracy to conjure a human replicant.

Louis’s consuming pursuit for the man-machine became overshadowed by national concerns. While praised for his support of the sciences, his reign was a hodgepodge of minor wars and failed treaties. He perished of smallpox in 1774. Unlike previous monarchs, his heart was not removed and preserved; fearing contamination, quicklime and alcohol was poured directly into his coffin by attendants.

Vaucanson also hoped that rubber would allow him to mold vocal chords for his contraption: The Bleeding Man, as he fancied him, would also be endowed with speech.

Ruthless in his drive for mechanical perfection, Vaucanson was unanimously called a difficult man. Among his many assistants who didn’t leave in fury, Herve Foucault (his grandson would invent the namesake Pendulum) likened his cold, inflexible personality to that of an automaton itself. Vaucanson fiddled off and on with the man-machine until his death in 1782, but officially he was done with the king’s impossible scientific dream, remarking only that he was “disgusted” with his involvement. Whether that disgust came from the sacrilegious nature of their cloning venture, or out of frustration at the unavailable resources needed to perfect the Bleeding Man, he never did elaborate.

In a 1790 allegory of the French Revolution, Francois-Felix Nagaret published “Le Miroir des événemens actuels, ou la belle au plus offrant,” or The Looking Glass of Actuality. Nagaret was influenced by the astounding mechanical beings of his day, chiefly those made by Jacques de Vaucanson. The work is about the invention of an automaton that is brought to life. Its inventor went by the name of Frankenstein.

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