Jonathan Swift young boy

The Frame Engine of Jonathan Swift

We don't know if the venerable Ramon Llull had a sense of humor, and if he evinced it designing the logical machine, described in his medieval Ars magna generalis ultima of 1305. But we can be quite sure, that more than four centuries later such a sense of humor evinced the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, describing similar machine is his remarkable Gulliver's Travels of 1726. Though Swift does not reference neither Ars generalis ultima of Llull, nor Arte Combinatoria of Leibniz, the passage for his fictional device is considered a parody of Llull's method.

In his fantasy novel, written to vex the world rather than divert it, Swift describes a fictional device (consisting of a big frame, manipulated by means of iron handles), called simply Engine, which generates permutations of word sets, as the ultimate goal was (no more no less:-) to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences. It was (probably) the earliest literary reference to a fictional device resembling aspects of a modern computer. Beyond doubt, when Swift wrote his novel the notion that a machine could handle language was an absurdity to be satirized.

What is the story?

One day the main character Lemuel Gulliver was permitted to see the grand academy of Lagado. While visiting the part of the academy, where the projectors in speculative learning resided, he met several professors and their students...

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.

The Frame of Jonathan Swift

The Frame Engine of Jonathan Swift

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.”

Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.
Jonathan Swift