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regarding divine Archbishops, gentle shaking, and the efforts of the Most Ignorant Person

June 12, 2013

Recently came across the article “Monkeying Around with Text” by the late Terry Butler of the University of Alberta; here it is in pdf, an earlier version in html. The second half of the article is about visualization, but the first half of the article talks about random text generation (the terminology related to the Infinite Monkeys generator caught my eye, though originally I was looking for Hardy Boys fulltexts for generation.) In particular, Butler mentions some historical antecedents, including

the 17th century English divine Archbishop Tillotson (Tillotson, 1719, p. 10):

[In Answer to the Epicurean System, he argues] “How often might a Man, after he had jumbled a Set of Letters in a Bag, fling them out upon the Ground before they would fall into an exact Poem, yea or so much as make a good Discourse in Prose? And may not a little Book be as easily made by Chance, as this great Volume of the World?

The citation is “Tillotson, John. Maxims and Discourses Moral and Devine: Taken from the Works of Arch-Bishop Tillotson, and Methodiz’d and Connected. London, 1719. 10-11.” which, happily, has been digitized. Here’s the relevant portion:

This is juft a Side Note as part of a longer Argument he’s making (no 17th century wordle bibles, unfortunately) but I like this because it presages Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s “To Make a Dadaist Poem”, part VIII of the “dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love” (1920):

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
Them poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

You may recognize that last sentence from the splash screen of the modern-day JanusNode generator.

Butler also pointed out random text generators in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which I’ll quote at length below. But it’s worth emphasizing why Gulliver’s hosts were engaging in text generation:

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.

Now tell me honestly… what has genius or study ever done for YOU!?!

from Gulliver’s Travels (via Gutenberg):

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.”

I especially like the last part about patent ownership, in light of the questions of authorship and appropriation that inevitably come up when dealing with generated text.

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