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Jonathan Swift Creates a Fictional Device that Resembles a Modern Computer

Artist's rendering of Jonathan Swift's "The Engine".

Artist's rendering of Jonathan Swift's "The Engine". This is the image that is very frequently used to illustrate this concept, but it is used without attribution.

In Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift describes a fictional device called The Engine, which generates permutations of word sets. It is possibly the earliest literary reference to a fictional device resembling aspects of a modern computer.  Though Swift does not reference the medieval Ars generalis ultima (Ars magna) of the Spanish philosopher Ramon Llull (Lull), called by Leibniz, the ars combinatoria in Leibnitz's De arte combinatoria, the passage is considered a parody of Llull's method.

Swift wrote:

“... 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."

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