What exactly makes man?

Is it his flesh and blood? Or rather his soul? And if it be his soul, what indeed entails him soulful – is it his capability for artistic expression, or perhaps his ability to articulate, experience or incite emotion?

The French public of the 1700s found themselves asking these questions as they gazed upon incredible automatons of which, essentially breathed – played music, entertained and indeed gazed back – with painted skin and lustrous eyes not so dissimilar to their own.

The idea of robots, or as most literature deems them, automatons inhabiting 18th century France seems a strange concept. Dystopian perhaps, or at least incredibly paradoxical. How indeed did the technology exist? Wasn’t France largely impoverished and at least hugely disadvantaged before the revolution and indeed throughout it?

Robotics in the 1700s were able to gain popularity and royalist support through their inherent allegiance to the monarchy. Abbe Mical created two talking heads that recited in the most immaculate French an allegiance to King Louis XV – royalist propaganda that stepped outside of pamphlets, government and essentially human interaction – here we had an automated representation of humanity, churning out patriotic insight in the form of two dismembered heads in a cabinet. Here we have articulation, albeit mechanical of course – and yet surely the capability of speech is essentially human, for it certainly ascends the realm of the bestial.

Moving away from mere patriotic recital, there was borne a life size android, of which was able to inhale and exhale through artificial lungs and with each breath, gesticulate the most wondrous melody – courtesy of a flute, of which the android’s dexterous, human like fingers manipulated expertly. Here was no ordinary mechanical contraption,

this robot could actively create music, entertaining and delighting the masses much to its creator Vaucanson’s profit.

And yet it was not quite this flute playing phenomenon that caught King Louis XV’ eye, instead it was a duck of which could consume, digest and even excrete that was visited by the King himself. It was at this pivotal meeting, where the King, scarcely 30 years of age and suffering a declining state of health, implored Vaucanson to create something that pushed even a modern sense of boundary – an anatomical replica of a human; and still, not just a model, something that could breathe, and beyond that, bleed.

The creature was never wholly actualised by Vaucanson, the importation of rubber was expensive, and had to be secretly shipped in for the King’s undercover project. Progress was in fact made thanks to the King’s commitment to the expensive expenditure and yet, tumult soon ensued with the revolution, and thus progress came to a halt. The robot, half-finished was lost in the chaos, and remains misplaced – yet to be found.

A lost android in Vieux Lyon makes for a strange image, and yet, it’s one set in our reality; not dystopian fiction. The brief robotic surge of 18th century France represents an effort to transcend our human confines, to push past our bodily constraints to bestow meaning, expression and perhaps even the semblance of life itself. The fashioning of the new man is a process that begun long before the first signs of riot and the culmination of the revolution was just one step amongst many in finding a new sense of self for the French populous.

May Huxley

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