Friday, February 21, 2014

Excerpt 12: The Eureka

In 1677, one John Peter published Artificial Versifying, A New Way to Make Latin Verses as a kind of entertainment for schoolboys. This explained a technique for composing Latin poetry automatically. Each verse was of an unvarying form:
Adjective  Noun   Adverb   Verb   Noun   Adjective
The meter of each word was also fixed, forcing the line into metrically correct hexameter:
dactyl   trochee   iamb   molossus   dactyl   trochee
For example, one of the lines the machine produced could be translated as “A gloomy castle sometimes shows a bright light.”
 It is perhaps surprising that a method of generating poetry was invented before one for generating prose, since poetry is supposed to require more of a creative spirit. But as with divination, the most important ingredient is the license that we grant to the poet or the oracle. We have a tendency to interpret strangeness in poetry as deliberate, rather than a mistake. The foreign language, Latin, also may have served to allow an additional step of interpretation to take place in the mind of the reader, making further allowances.

In this case, the system was eventually literally automated. John Clark, an inventor and printer from Bridgewater, England, began in 1830 to build a machine to carry out the steps of John Peter’s process. He built a cabinet the size of a small bookcase that composed the poem while simultaneously playing “God Save the Queen.” His device consisted of six turning cylinders, one for each of the six terms in the line of poetry. If it had simply displayed six words, it would have been regarded merely as a clever plaything. But Clark encoded the words using pins in such a way that they would cause individual letters to fall into place, apparently at random. This gave the impression that the machine was somehow composing the poem letter by letter, which was much more impressive. He deliberately fostered this illusion, writing in a letter to the editor of The Athenaeum, a monthly magazine:
Permit me, as the constructor of the Eureka, or Machine for composing Hexameter Latin Verses, to make a few observations on its general principles, in reference to Dr. Nuttall's remarks, in your last week's paper. The machine is neither more nor less than a practical illustration of the law of evolution. The process of composition is not by words already formed, but from separate letters. This fact is perfectly obvious, although some spectators may probably have mistaken the effect for the cause—the result for the principle—which is that of kaleidoscopic evolution; and as an illustration of this principle it is that the machine is interesting—a principle affording a far greater scope of extension than has hitherto been attempted. The machine contains letters in alphabetical arrangement. Out of these, through the medium of numbers, rendered tangible by being expressed by indentures on wheel work, the instrument selects such as are requisite to form the verse conceived; the components of words suited to form hexameters being alone previously calculated, the harmonious combination of which will be found to be practically interminable.—Yours, &c. J. Clark. July 2, 1845.[1]
By the time this machine was built, there was an active press in London. This makes it possible for us to follow the conversation as society responded to the introduction of a machine that could compose. Of particular interest is what verbs were used to describe the actions of the machine:  it was said to be “composing,” “selecting,” and “thinking.” The machine follows the same architecture, the kaleidoscope pattern laid out in the introduction, where individual pieces (the Latin words in this case) are randomly chosen and are combined according to strict rules. All these machines are associated with entertainment and with illusions of mental activity, in this case explicitly encouraged by the inventor.
At the time of its exhibition (for one shilling at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London) the device attracted a lot of attention. William Thackeray joked in Punch magazine that “several double-barrelled Eurekas were ordered for Eton, Harrow, and Rugby.”[2] One author wrote, “I do not see its immediate utility; but as something curious, it is, perhaps, entitled to take its place with Babbage’s Calculating machine, and inventions of that class.”[3] In fact, Charles Babbage was familiar with the machine and with its inventor. William Hodgson, an economist, wrote, “It is truly a curious machine. Though I cannot say much for the sense of the verses…. The inventor spent fifteen years upon it, five years more than are needed to make a boy into a verse-making machine, and still less perfect. Clarke is a strange, simple-looking old man. Babbage said the other day that he was as great a curiosity as his machine.”[4]
On its front face was inscribed the lines:
Eternal truths of character sublime,Conceived in darkness, here shall be unroll'd;
The mystery of number and of timeIs here displayed in characters of gold.
Transcribe each line composed by this machine,Record the fleeting thoughts as they arise;
A line once lost will ne'er again be seen;A thought once flown perhaps forever flies.
Part of the fascination expressed regarding many of these creative machines was the ephemeral character of their random creations, which if not recorded would be lost forever. Imagine the most beautiful poem ever crafted. Wouldn’t it be an unspeakable tragedy if it was played only once, to an empty room, when not a single soul was listening? Nature is extravagant in this way with beauty. Think how many sunsets passed before there was anyone around to appreciate them, or of the clouds on Jupiter, storms the size of worlds, with no one there to watch them roll in. Or perhaps, a listener does hear the poem, just this single time, and forever afterwards is haunted by a few words, a single phrase. Granted, the Eureka didn’t produce poetry of this caliber; but it wouldn’t be hard to make a similar machine that did produce such poetry occasionally, mixed in with enormous amounts of nonsense (the monkeys and Shakespeare again.) The rules that forced the Eureka to always generate grammatical sentences were perhaps too strict to allow any truly creative sentences; eliminating the possibility of embarrassing failures led to a strategy that was too conservative to allow spectacular successes. (In the last chapter there is some discussion of how some future program may be able to move past such limitations.)
Another point often mentioned in the tabloids was the combinatorial explosion of possible sentences. Over the course of a week, one journalist noted, the machine, if left running, would produce over 10,000 unique verses. It becomes a torrent, poetry enough to make a person choke. It is like a snowy waste, where the unique, delicate snowflakes pile up to form mile after mile of mind-numbing sameness.
The device also included a kaleidoscope (a fad at the time—see chapter I), which produced a unique illustration to accompany each verse. The inventor was aware that both of these machines were performing analogous functions, that what he was building was just one of a class of “creative” machines. The Eureka has been maintained and can still be seen in the Records Office of Clarks’ factory in Somerset.
The idea of a poetry-generating machine was a kind of running joke from this time period until the early twentieth century. For example, “The Poetry Machine” was a short story by Charles Barnard published in 1872. In this story, a young boy happens upon a poetry machine:
“He went up to the table and stood before the wonderful array of cranks, wheels, and levers. The machine was about three feet long and two feet wide and high. There was a clockwork attachment, with a weight that hung on a pulley under the table. It resembled a telegraph machine. There was a long ribbon of paper rolled on two wheels, and it had a marker, just as Morse's instrument has, to print the words. On one side were a number of stops or handles, with ivory heads, having curious words marked upon them. One was marked, “Serious,” another, “Comic,” another, “Serenades,” and so on; one was marked, “Stopped rhymes,” another, “Open rhymes,” and there was one marked “Metre.”
The boy generates poems without meter and with nothing but the rhymes as he learns how to operate the machine. The story serves as a parody of the kind of thoughtless poetry that was churned out for commercial jingles or greeting cards. Besides similar stories, “poetic machine” was used as a humorous metaphor for the poetry-making capacity in the poet’s mind (especially for poets whose primary concern was making sure each pair of lines rhymed). All of these references assume that the reader will agree that simply “turning a crank” to generate poetry is an absurdity.

[1] John Clark, Atheneum, 1845
[2] Punch 9, 1845, p. 20
[3]  Littell’s Living Age, Volume VII, p. 214
[4] Life and Letters of William Ballantyne Hodgeson, 1883, p. 52