Fictional Chatbots: The Engine from Gulliver’s Travels

Last Updated on October 5, 2020 by Sean B

The Engine is a fictional device described in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift back in 1726. To my knowledge, it is the first device described anywhere that resembles a modern computer. The Engine generates permutations of word sets and is found (in the fictional world of course) at the Academy of Projectors in Lagado.

Swift’s description of The Engine is as follows:

“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.”

Gulliver’s Travels The Book

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan SwiftJonathan Swift originally published Gulliver’s Travels anonymously in 1726, the book was also known as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. It is one of the earliest books that can be called a novel, and it’s widely credited with helping give birth to the novel as an artform.

It was written as a satire of travel narratives, which were popular during the time, and used adventure and satire as a way to criticize the English customs and politics of the day.

Our hero, Lemuel Gulliver, is a surgeon and sea captain who visits remote regions of the world. In the first part, or his first voyage, he is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and washes up on the shores of Lilliput, where the inhabitants are all 6 inches tall.

Gulliver’s second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, a land of giants. Gulliver is a curiosity and is exhibited for money by a farm owner. The queen eventually buys him and he becomes a hit at court, except with the king. He is eventually picked up by a giant Eagle and then rescued at sea.

During Gulliver’s third voyage he is set adrift by pirates and winds up on a flying island called Laputa. The residents here all have one eye pointed inward and one pointed upwards. They are always lost in thought and are very concerned with artistic pursuits. This is where Gulliver visits Lagado and finds the Engine. He is eventually able to sail to Japan and then home to England.

In his final voyage, he travels to a land where a race of highly evolved and benevolent intelligent horses called Houyhnhnms live along with a brutish, disgusting humanoid race called Yahoos. The horse beings are very intrigued by Gulliver who is a Yahoo but is also civilized. But as Gulliver describes his country in more detail, the horse creatures realize that the people of England aren’t all that different from the Yahoos and they send Gulliver packing.

When Gulliver gets back home, he is so disgusted with humanity that he avoids everyone including his family, instead he buys horses and talks to them.

Movies Based on Gulliver’s Travels

Several movie versions of Gulliver’s Travels were made. The first version, an Animated Gulliver’s Travels version was released in 1939. The next version was a musical version that was partially animated. There is also a two-part version of Gulliver’s Travels made by the Hallmark Movie channel in 1996 starring Ted Danson as Gulliver. The one most of us are probably familiar with however is the Gulliver’s Travels version starring Jack Black.

The Engine from Gulliver's Travels

The Engine

The Engine was a device housed in the Academy of Projectors in Lagado that created works of prose and poetry completely mechanically. It was a hand-crank operated machine that consisted of the small wood blocks mentioned above covered by paper that held every word in the language of Lagado. The blocks were connected to each other by wires.

As the cranks were turned, the blocks and words shifted places and created phrases that were either sentence fragments or complete sentences. These phrases were written down by scribes and the whole thing was repeated until the Engine had created an entire book.

What Makes The Engine a Computer, or Not

While the Engine may not sound like today’s computers, it was a device conceived of more than a hundred years before the first calculating device created by Charles Babbage. Looking past that, we see that the Machine does perform a mechanical task like Babbage’s device, it made calculations of a sort with no human (or Lagadan in this case) involvement.

The machine that Swift envisioned performed its “calculations” with words instead of numbers, but it was performing calculations of a sort. That by definition makes it a computer. If we look at what sort of calculations it was actually performing, then it might be considered more of a random number generator, but the concept was no less impressive.

In fact, ComputerHistory.org states in an article about Gulliver’s Engine that:

“Like the Engine from Gulliver’s Travels, many experiments have been made to see if computers could be used to create and tell stories.”

That describes what Swift’s creation really was, it was a Creation Engine.

It’s possible that Racter, a chatbot created by William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter in 1984 comes closer than any other actual creation to Gulliver’s concept of the Engine. Racter wrote his own book of prose, called The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed as a self-introduction.

The citizens of Lagado from Gulliver's Travels

How Did The Engine Work?

The Engine took random words and combined them into prose and poetry through mechanical means. Once the calculations were done, students read the results aloud for a scribe to record.

It took 36 students to crank the handles and make the Engine work, they then read the phrases they found to the 4 scribes who recorded everything. As for the actual technology Swift imagined behind the scenes, there isn’t enough information to even guess properly.

What I find truly fascinating is the fact that the illustration of the Engine looks so much like the CPU from a modern computer. I can almost imagine the cranks as the pins connecting it into the mother board and the wooden blocks as the various wires on the chip that make the CPU work.

What The Engine Added

While we can only guess what Swift had in mind for how the Engine worked. However, if we reimagine it as a modern computer, then it sounds incredibly like an AI chatbot using Natural Language Processing.

The Engine is simply an imagined computer, programmed with every single word in a specific language and their various permutations along with rules about how they are used. It uses this programming to create original prose and poetry, which is the only area where it differs from every other modern AI chatbot.

Now we’re getting closer to what the Engine was and what made it tick. It was an engine built to create, much like Racter, the chatbot that wrote his own book. Whatever sort of mechanism that Swift imagined must have worked much the same as modern chatbots.

Conclusion

Like other authors in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, Jonathan Swift had an imagination that reached well into the future. The concept of the Engine is very similar to a simple computer, as is the way it worked. What is most intriguing is the fact that, like the chatbot Racter, the Engine was a creative device. It’s sole function was to create works of prose and poetry without the involvement of humans, except for the ones turning the cranks and writing everything down.

I think the Engine operated much like todays AI chatbots with NLP, and anyone looking deep enough will find those same similarities.

Let me know what you think below.

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2 thoughts on “Fictional Chatbots: The Engine from Gulliver’s Travels”

  1. Not in a million years I would have connect those dots but you are absolutely right, the engine was a chatbot! Got me thinking about other chatbots in scifi and fantasy. Do HAL 9000 and KITT count as chat bots or are they too sophisticated? HAL at least had perfect pronunciation but I think there was something a bit off in his source code lol!

    Reply
    • Chuck,

      I think they do, and I’ll be adding articles for each of them over the next several weeks.

      I agree with you about HAL being a bit off, but then again so are a few of the other fictional chatbots that I’ll be adding… “I’ll be back.”

      Sean

      Reply

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