The Eureka Machine

The Strange Victorian Computer That Generated Latin Verse

Atlas Obscura, Sept. 23, 2016

In July 1845, British curiosity-seekers headed to London’s Egyptian Hall to try out the novelty of the summer. For the price of one shilling, they could stand in front of a wooden bureau, pull a lever, and look behind a panel where six drums, bristling with metal spokes, revolved. At the end of its “grinding,” what it produced was not a numeric computation or a row of fruit symbols, but something quite different: a polished line of Latin poetry.

This strange gadget, a Victorian ancestor of the computer, was called the Eureka.

The Eureka was the brainchild, and obsession, of a man in southwest England named John Clark. The eccentric Clark was a cousin of Cyrus and James Clark, founders of the Clarks shoes empire (which went on to popularize the Desert Boot in the 1950s and is still going strong). Clark built the Eureka at a time when such devices were all the rage. As literature scholar Jason David Hall explains in an academic article on the Eureka, the machine joined other proto-computers like the Polyharmonicon, a machine that composed polkas, and the Euphonia, which “spoke” when a person played an attached keyboard.

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Photograph courtesy of the Alfred Gillett Trust