Illustration from The Illustrated London News, July 1845
(Click here to see how the Eureka machine looks today.)
A Victorian special-purpose computer
When we think of computers, in our foreshortened view of history, we
see them as a recent phenomenon We forget that the abacus and sundial are
ancient, and must be reminded that the computer had many predecessors, in
the form of astronomical and mathematical calculators (including those
designed by the philosophers Pascal and Leibniz). In particular, we view
as modern the application of computers to non-scientific or creative
problems such as robotics, artificial intelligence, composing children's
stories, or creating movie panoramas of armies and dinosaurs by machine.
But these more humanistic applications of machines also had their
precursors. Among these was the Eureka machine of 1845, an early
In 1845, John Clark built the Eureka Machine for Composing Hexameter
Latin Verses, which he exhibited it at Egyptian Hall in Picadilly.
Words were pre-encoded on turning cylinders, whose projecting pins would
cause letters to drop, forming Latin verses. The cylinders were turned
random amounts, so that a different verse was formed each time, but each
verse had the same grammatical shape: adjective, substantive, adverb,
verb, substantive, adjective. An example of a verse produced by the
Eureka (in which we must forgive an improper short first "a" in
BARBARA FROENA DOMI PROMITTUNT FOEDERA MALA
"Barbarian bridles at home promise evil covenants"
The machine also played music and created an abstract visual display.
The original article describing the debut of the Eureka, which was
published in The Illustrated London News on July 19, 1845, appears
below. The illustration accompanying the article is reproduced at the
head of this page.
Clark belonged to the family that founded C & J Clark Shoes, and the
actual historic machine, restored in 1951, now resides in the Shoe Museum,
Street, Somerset, England (see "Further
Information about the Eureka Machine" below).
There is more about the Eureka machine and many other historic
machines in the chapters of the
The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the
Literary Scholar, of which the first chapter
"A Guide to the Labyrinth" can be read on this
Web site. Included on the CD is a suite of programs for the study of
literary texts. One of them, COMPOSE, uses pre-encoded phrases (stored
as tables in a database) to construct sentences having the form:
introductory phrase, subject phrase, verb phrase, object phrase.
It is thus similar in concept to Clark's Eureka, but where the Eureka
used cylinders that spun a random amount, when set in motion by clockwork,
COMPOSE uses a random number generator (the RND function in Visual Basic).
You can get more information about The Loom of Minerva by
e-mailing me at email@example.com.
Such is the name of a Machine for Composing Hexameter Latin Verses,
which is now exhibited at the Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly. It was
designed and constructed at Bridgewater, in Somersetshire; was begun
in 1830, and completed in 1843; and it has lately been brought
to the metropolis, to contribute to the "sights of the season."
The exterior of the machine resembles, in form, a small bureau book-case;
in the frontispiece of which, through an aperture, the verses appear
in succession as they are composed.
The machine is described by the Inventor as neither more nor lees 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 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 practically
The rate of composition is about one verse per minute, or sixty
in an hour. "Each verse remains stationary and visible a sufficient time
for a copy of it to be taken; after which the machine gives an audible
notice that the Line is about to be decomposed.
Each Letter of the verse is then slowly and separately removed
into its former alphabetical arrangement; on which the machine stops,
until another verse be required. Or, by withdrawing the stop,
it may be made to go on continually, producing in one day and night,
or twenty-four hours, about 1440 Latin verses; or, in a whole week
(Sundays included), about 10,000.
"During the composition of each line, a cylinder in the interior
of the machine performs the National Anthem.
As soon as the verse is complete, a short pause of silence ensues.
"On the announcement that the line is about to be broken up,
the cylinder performs the air of "Fly not yet," until every letter
is returned into its proper place in the alphabet.
There is on the frontispiece of the machine, above the line of verse,
a tablet, bearing the following Inscription: —
" 'Full many a gem, of purest ray serene,
The dark, unfathom'd caves of ocean bear.
And many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its fragrance on the desert air."
Full many a thought, of character sublime,
Conceived in darkness, here shall be unrolled.
The mystery of number and of time
is here displayed in characters of gold.
Transcribe each line composed by this machine,
'Record the fleeting thoughts as they arise;'
A line, once lost, may ne'er again be seen,
'A thought, once flown, perhaps for ever flies.' "
The primum mobile, or first moving power of the machine,
is a leaden weight of about twenty pounds, with an auxiliary weight of
ten pounds, applied to another part of the movement: these are occasionally
wound up, and the velocity is regulated in the usual manner, by a worm
"The entire machine contains about 86 wheels, giving motion to cylinders,
cranks, spirals, pullies, levers, springs, ratchets, quadrants, tractors,
snails, worm and fly, heart-wheels, eccentric-wheels, and
star-wheels — all of which are in essential and effective motion,
with various degrees of velocity, each performing its part in proper time
and place. And in the front of the interior is a large Kaleidoscope, which
regularly constructs a splendid geometric figure. This action is
performed at the commencement of the operation, and at the precise time
when the line of verse is conceived, previous to its mechanical
From The Illustrated London News, July 19, 1845.
The Eureka Machine Today
This is how the Eureka looks today, outside and inside. (Photos
courtesy of The Shoe Museum, Street, Somerset.)
Further information about the Eureka machine
For further reading about the Eureka, see:
Clark, R., "Barbara Froena Domi Promittunt Foedera Mala," in
Somerset Anthology (P. Lovell, ed.), pp. 96-102, York:
Sessions, 1975. This particular article
(with the title taken from a verse produced by the machine) was written
in 1951, at the time of the machine's restoration.
Foster, C., "Notes on the Mechanical Construction of the Machine for
Composing Hexameter Latin Verse," March 8, 1951.
Randell, Brian (ed.), The Origins of Digital Computers, Selected
Papers, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 3rd ed. 1982. These
are in many cases the actual papers in which historic machines and
significant ideas were first introduced. The extensive bibliography
includes references for the Eureka machine.
As of 2005, the Eureka machine is at the (C & J Clark) Shoe Museum, whose
address is: The Shoe Museum, Clarks Village, Street, BA 16 0YA, Somerset,
England; telephone 01458 842 169; e-mail Janet.Targett@clarks.com.
In answer to an e-mail to the museum, I am told that unfortunately the
machine is currently stored where it cannot be viewed by the public.
I am indebted to Prof. Brian Randell of the University of Newcastle
Upon Tyne and the Shoe Museum in Street, Somerset, England for
information about how the Eureka machine works and about its current
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