Poetry by Numbers, Then and Now: Metre, Mathematics, Machines and Manufacture

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: English


This project centres on a one-off piece of technology from the 1830s/40s: the Eureka Latin Verse Machine. This device, built to 'compose' in random sequence lines of poetry (each one arranged in Latin hexameters), was conceived and constructed by a Somerset inventor named John Clark. The 'programme' on which Clark's machine works, which had been in existence for over a hundred years when he decided to 'automate' it, consists of a table of letters so arranged that when a person selects from among them following a particular numerical sequence he or she is able to 'manufacture' a line of poetry that is at once 'correct' in terms of its metre, grammar and sense. The Eureka uses a system of wooden staves, metal wires and revolving drums that are activated when the machine is wound up by hand. Once one line of poetry is composed it appears in windows on the machine's front; the line is then scrambled and another appears in its place, ostensibly in random order, this process continuing until the machine runs out of motive power. The project is interested in uncovering and documenting the competencies, methodologies and skill sets needed for the construction of such a device, as well as the extent to which the convergence of these specialisms can be put to productive use in the current day to inform restoration projects relating to Britain's technological heritage. To that end, the project assembles experts from the key disciplines whose knowledge feeds into the working of the Eureka: a specialist in nineteenth-century versification (principal investigator); an expert in Classical studies of the Victorian period; a historian of nineteenth-century mathematics; a mathematician and computer scientist (co-investigator); engineering specialists working at Exeter's Centre for Additive Layer Manufacture (CALM); two conservators; and the archivist for the Alfred Gillett Trust (AGT), which owns the Eureka. This team of experts, co-ordinated by the principal and co-investigator, with other named experts advising on a sub-contractual basis to keep costs to a minimum, will assess the historical object and documents obtaining immediately and peripherally to it (e.g., notes on its construction and on Victorian prosody/programming/mathematics/Classics more generally) with a view to (1) understanding the Eureka's operation, (2) conserving the device itself and (3) returning it (where feasible) to a functional state. Given its age and uniqueness, however, the project will also (4) produce both a virtual and actual replica--the former using up-to-date computer programming, and the latter the procedures of 3-D printing in Exeter's CALM lab--that will allow for display and hands-on operation. A related outcome is the documenting of collaborative methods and manufacturing techniques for potential application in other restoration projects. The knowledge we gain about the use of 3-D printing for the construction of objects relating to the history of science will have transferable use across the museums and heritage sector, providing a model for best practice, as well as a detailed construction template. Once the core work supported by the grant has been accomplished, we envisage an exhibition of the machine, alongside its replicas and related examples of Victorian 'computing' technology, bringing the Eureka, which was famously exhibited in 1845, back to public view. Roughly 170 years later, a new generation can appreciate the collaboration of science and culture, with a fuller awareness of the array of techniques that came together--both then and now--to make possible computer-generated poetry. For this venture, which is likely to fall beyond the immediate timeframe of the grant, we have begun dialogue with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter (which already maintains a collection of artefacts relating to Babbage's 'Difference Engine'), as well museums in Somerset (where the Euerka was originally built) and the Science Museum in London.

Planned Impact

The project generates both academic and economic and societal impact--through its end products but also through its methods and processes, which will be carefully documented with a view to sharing with scholars, members of the heritage sector and the general public. Impact generation can be divided into four main areas: public exhibition and engagement, schools, undergraduates and the heritage and private sectors.

Public exhibition appeals to the general public with a focus on science and technology in its historical and cultural context. The specific iterations of the Eureka realized through the project provide a focus for exploration of the foundations of computational poetry and language. Furthermore, the technologies involved (e.g., 3D printing and artificial intelligence) have captured the public imagination. Exhibition will fall outside the immediate timeframe of the grant, but we have begun dialogue with, in addition to the Alfred Gillett Trust (current proprietors of the machine), museums in Devon, Somerset and London. Ultimately, exhibition plans will depend on conservation outcomes, and for these reasons we have not factored exhibition plans into the application's Timetable or Resources.

Public engagement designates other ways of reaching a general audience. Given the wide appeal of the cultural and technical topics related to the Eureka, the project will seek to engage popular scientific and history magazines (e.g., New Scientist) and television programmes. Further, to secure the wider impact of the materials we produce, the project website will make available videos, case files, and software, enabling the public to co-create new material based on the project.

The project will invite local schools to view aspects of the restoration and replica construction. Exeter's Computer Science department already runs a series of workshops for schools, which will be extended to include ideas of randomness, language and poetry generation. We will work with the newly-founded Exeter Mathematics School, a sixth-form specialist mathematics school, which has strong links with the University of Exeter, but also with students taking English and Latin at GCSE and Royal Institution mathematics classes held at the university. In addition, the project will engage directly with the Computing at School (CAS) initiative, which seeks to promote and support computer science education in light of the introduction of the new ICT curriculum. Following previous conferences hosted by Exeter, we will co-ordinate another conference towards the end of the project that focuses on John Clark, the Eureka machine, language and chatbots.

Videos from a preliminary examination of the Eureka are already used by the CI in programming courses reaching over 200 undergraduates a year, and the PI presents prosodical documents relating to the Eureka in undergraduate poetry options. The project will also engage a group of undergraduate Engineering students in a final-year project and a final-year Computer Science student in making a 3D virtual simulation.

Of particular relevance to both academic and extra-academic beneficiaries are the methods underpinning the restoration and replication of the Eureka using additive layer manufacturing. The principal beneficiary here will be the heritage sector, particularly in relation to preservation, display and interpretation of historical artefacts since the industrial revolution. We will therefore pursue ways of disseminating the results of our study through professional trade bodies such as the Museum Association and the Institute for Conservation and publications such as Museum Practice. The working methods and techniques may be even more widely applicable, and the project thus presents a prototypical case study of the use of 3D printing for the replication of historical materials, whether by a publically funded museum or private corporation (e.g., a manufacturer of scientific instruments).


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Description Discovered more exactly the functioning of the Eureka Latin Verse Machine and the principles on which it was orginally constructed. Discovered how to combine additive-layer and conventional manufacturing techniques for the construction of a replica of a unique historical artefact. Developed materials and methods for the construction of both a physical and a virtual replica of the machine. Discovered more about the combinatory principles on which hexameter verse functioned and their application in nineteenth-century education. Discovered much about the material composition of the artefact.
Exploitation Route Our project has much to say about how heritage institutions might restore unique mechanical artefacts; how virtual and physical replicas can be constructed; how the sciences and humanities can collaborate on a historical project.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The Poetry by Numbers project has contributed digitizing of archival materials for the Alfred Gillett Trust, making parts of its collection of John Clark/Eureka Latin Verse Machine papers more resilient and, by the conclusion of the project (June 2016), more accessible to a wider audience. We also envisage sharing some of our methodolgical findings with the AGT, as part of their ongoing care of the historical object on which the project has focused, and these findings may form part of the project's wider knoweldge transfer aspect, if conservators currently working on the project are able to transfer skills, practices and findings gained on the project to their other work (e.g., for local museums such as Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum). Another outcome of the project will a media archive, including interactive webpages, virtual replica and short documentary film. These will be available to visitors to the AGT at the project's conclusion, as well as to anyone visiting the project's site while it is hosted by the University of Exeter, and the film may be screened as part of a public showcase of the project's work. A physical replica of the Eureka Latin Verse Machine will have been constructed by the end of the project, which can be exhibited publically.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Title manufacture 
Description Determining the extent to which ALM was applicable to replica construction vs. conventional manufacturing techniques; problem-solving in technical drawings to optimize performance of replica; decisions about materials 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Not sure yet as work is still underway . . . 
Title Database of archival sources and mechanics 
Description We have developed a database of archival sources (digitasations of some of the AGT collections we are working with); also, we have created a virtual inventory of parts (together with complete computer drawings and in some cases 3D scans) for the arfefact/replica. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact These data will enable visitors to the AGT in future to access its resources more easily and aid in any future conservation/restoration work needed on the artefact, as well as any further replica construction. It will also give a comprhensive view of how the machine works, enabling many more people (specialists and everyday visitors) to understand its functions and the discrete functions of its many parts. 
Title Virtual Replica 
Description Computer programme simulating operation of Eureka Latin Verse Machine 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We can enable exhibition of the artefact's prinicples and output without recourse to the object itself; also, we can undertake work on how to provide good translations (from Latin to English). 
Description Alfred Gillett Trust 
Organisation Alfred Gillett Trust
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Conservation/restoration of artefect; digitization of documents; construction of web site; expert commentary on materials in their collection
Collaborator Contribution Pay for conservation work (cost shared by Exeter via grant); staff (archivist) time (in kind contribution)
Impact restored heritage object; database of archival documents; website, replica construction; detailed plans; publications in process.
Start Year 2015