1721: Jonathan Swift’s writing Engine

It might seem astonishing that as early as 1959, computers were ubiquitous and automated creative writing was being explored but as Jean Baudot mentions in 1964, humans have always been concerned with automation.

In the historical context of occidental literature, consider the following excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (Book III, Chapter 5) written in 1721 which describes an automated writing machine. This excerpt is reputedly based on Raymond Llull Ars Magna, a combinatorial method for debating theology. Swift’s imaginative and accurate depiction of physical array systems proves that artists often explore technological potentials before implementation occurs. Inspiration precedes implementation yet accurately depicts the methodology utilized in many computational art-works.

We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where, as I have already said, the projectors in speculative learning resided.

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.”

He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”

I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;” the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, “although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival.”

(Book III, Chapter 5)

Swift’s entire passage is a subtle multi-faceted meditation on the folly of creativity, the absurdity of ownership, the power of algorithms and their limits.

Compare the mechanistic and materialist dig that Swift makes about intellectual theft at the end of the preceding passage with Brion Gysin’s proclamation on non-ownership of words:

“The poets are supposed to liberate the words – not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words “of their own.” Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?”

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One Response to “1721: Jonathan Swift’s writing Engine”

  1. Paul Nash

    I have written a novel, Whispering Crates, about a novel-writing program. I haven’t found a publisher yet. Please contact me if you are curious about it.