Eureka! It’s an automatic Latin poetry machine

The ‘Eureka’ machine (image: Alfred Gillett Trust)

I just have to share this wonderful machine a friend recently sent me an article about: the ‘Eureka‘, a machine created in the early 19th century which automatically generated Latin poetry. Invented by John Clark (a relative of the Clarks who founded the shoe company), the machine caused a sensation when put on public display in London in 1845 (it was the subject of articles in Punch and the Illustrated London News, and its exhibition apparently made Clark enough money to retire).

To explain how the Eureka works we need to look first (briefly!) at how Latin poetry works. Unlike English metrical poetry, which relies on different patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, Latin poetry uses patterns not of stress but of quantity – syllables ending in a short vowel are ‘short’ in length, while those ending in a long vowel or consonant are ‘long’. The metre produced by the Eureka is the one used in epic poetry, such as Virgil’s Aeneid: the hexameter, containing six ‘feet’ each with either two long syllables or one long followed by two short. The first line of the Aeneid below shows how this works: long syllables are underlined, syllable boundaries shown by dots and feet separated by |: vi.|rum.que ca|no Troi.|ae qui| pri.mus ab|

‘I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy…’

Try reading the line out spending a bit longer on each of the underlined syllables and you’ll get the idea of the metre. Incidentally, it’s very hard to write hexameter lines like this in English (because of the way the stressed/unstressed syllables have to be arranged), but there are a few examples – here’s the first line of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Evangeline’ (published in 1847, two years after the display of the Eureka), with stressed syllables where in Latin you’d have long syllables: again, try reading it out loud to get an idea of the rhythm:

This is the | forest pri | meval. The | murmuring | pines and the | hemlocks

It’s the Latin patterning of long and short syllables that enables the Eureka to automatically generate lines of hexameter, by being ‘pre-programmed’ with two- and three-syllable words of the appropriate metrical shape (long-short-short or long-long) to fit into each of the six feet. Putting words of different classes into each of the six ‘slots’ (adjective-noun-adverb-verb-noun-adjective) means that any given line the machine generates with a) always fit the metre and b) always construct a grammatical correct, if not especially poetic, Latin sentence, as shown by Clark’s own example line and translation:

mar.ti.a| cas.tra for|is prae|nar.rant|| mul.ta

‘Martial encampments foreshadow many oppositions abroad’

The Eureka might now seem merely a quaint and fairly eccentric machine, but that doesn’t explain its huge popularity at the time of its first exhibition – clearly, large numbers of people were willing to pay to watch a machine create a line of Latin verse, and it was the subject of a lot of media interest. There’s an interesting article here (by Jason Hall, an academic at the University of Exeter) about the way the Eureka fits in not just to Victorian obsessions with creating and displaying automata which could do all kind of obscure things, but also into the debates that were going on at the time about the nature of school and university education.

The study of Latin and Greek was of course central to elite education in the UK well beyond 1845 (for context, it was not until 1919 that the University of Cambridge abolished ‘compulsory Greek’ – the requirement that anyone wishing to study any subject at the university had to pass an exam in ancient Greek). Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries there were a series of ongoing debates about both the  way that Classics was taught (the traditional heavy emphasis on close reading of literary texts and the composition of one’s own Latin and Greek poetry was increasingly coming under pressure from those aiming to widen its scope to include archaeology, history, etc., as we generally do in ‘Classics’ today) – and, more broadly, the predominance of Classics over other subjects, especially more potentially ‘useful’ ones like the sciences: hence the later ‘compulsory Greek’ debates.

I won’t go on anymore about this here, but for anyone interested in the history of Classics over this period, I recommend both the article linked to above, and the collected essays on the subject in C. Stray’s ‘Classics in 19th and 20th century Cambridge’ (Cambridge, 1999) – particularly interesting for the way some of the articles address how educational debates like these were bound up with issues of both class (you generally had to have gone to a public school to get the kind of education that would allow you to do well at the Greek examinations) and gender (women, who were attending universities in increasing numbers by the early 20th century, generally did not have access to the same kind of classical education as men pre-university) – see also the website of the ‘Classics and Class‘ project exploring the ways in which working-class people engaged with Classics up to the early 20th century. To get back to the Eureka, the machine is currently being conserved to go on display in Somerset at the Alfred Gillett Trust (which looks after the collections of the Clark family and firm). No news yet on whether there’ll be demonstrations of it creating Latin poetry, but we can hope!


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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