Sunday 28 September 2008

Somerset's extraordinary early computer

The town of Bridgwater in Somerset is still known for its annual Carnival, and many people who travelled to the south-west before the M5 was built remember the smell of its Cellophane factory, but it has a far more curious claim to fame. Now almost forgotten is the invention there of a bizarre early computer called Eureka.

John Clark grew up in the surrounding area, and became a printer in the town. However, in 1830 he had his brainwave. Forget the calculating machines which make far more obvious descendants for today's computers: this was a machine for composing Latin hexameter verse. The machine was duly built (it took 13 years), and Clark exhibited it at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1845.

Eureka worked by having a series of cylinders, each accounting for one word and each cylinder dealing with one part of speech (subject noun, adjective, verb, etc). Each cylinder operated a series of staves with the alphabet, so that its movement caused the staves to form new words. The cylinders would rotate randomly so that a different line of verse appeared each time the machine stopped. It would then pause to allow spectators to read and write down the line before starting again.

The whole process took about a minute per line, but spectators were kept entertained as Eureka also played the national anthem. To warn visitors when a line was about to be broken up, it burst into a tune called 'Fly not yet'. The whole effect was clearly exciting enough to the early Victorians that huge numbers were prepared to pay a shilling to view it: the exhibition was a great success and Clark would retire after it. Since he was a member of the same family that founded Clark's shoes, the machine made its way to the Shoe Museum in Street. It is still there today, but not currently on public display. (Clark's display of financial acumen here was not typical: he also patented a method of waterproofing cloth, but to his financial loss, sold it to one Mackintosh).

Did it produce great poetry? Probably not: one line was 'BARBARA FROENA DOMI PROMITTUNT FOEDERA MALA' ('Barbarian bridles at home promise evil covenants'). However, it probably had the same appeal as various jargon generators do today - fancy creating a 'random Latin hexameter' website?

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