Too strange not to spread.

Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

From: Carey Lening (
Date: Mon Oct 02 2000 - 15:49:52 PDT

Got this from Declan McCullaugh's mailer. A gentleman at the AT&T research
labs, Jim Reed, has done a fairly detailed trace of the
monkey-at-the-typewriter bit that spread around and is continually spread
around. This was so interesting to me, that I had to share. Enjoy.

The Parable of the Monkeys
A.k.a. The Topos of the Monkeys and the Typewriters
Borel, 1913
        ... Concevons qu'on ait dressé un million de singes à frapper au
hasard sur les touches d'une machine à écrire et que, sous la surveillance
de contremaîtres illettrés, ces singes dactylographes travaillent avec
ardeur dix heures par jour avec un million de machines à écrire de types
variés. Les contremaîtres illettrés rassembleraient les feuilles noircies et
les relieraient en volumes. Et au bout d'un an, ces volumes se trouveraient
renfermer la copie exacte des livres de toute nature et de toutes langues
conservés dans les plus riches bibliothèques du monde. Telle est la
probabilité pour qu'il se produise pendant un instant très court, dans un
espace de quelque éntendue, un écart notable de ce que la méchanique
statistique considère comme la phénomène le plus probable...
Émile Borel, ``Méchanique Statique et Irréversibilité,'' J. Phys. 5e série,
vol. 3, 1913, pp.189-196.
Eddington, 1929
        ... If I let my fingers wander idly over the keys of a typewriter it
might happen that my screed made an intelligible sentence. If an army of
monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the
British Museum. The chance of their doing so is decidedly more favourable
than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel.
A. S. Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World: The Gifford Lectures,
1927. New York: Macmillan, 1929, page 72.
Jeans, 1930
        ... It was, I think, Huxley, who said that six monkeys, set to strum
unintelligently on typewriters for millions of millions of years, would be
bound in time to write all the books in the British Museum. If we examined
the last page which a particular monkey had typed, and found that it had
chanced, in its blind strumming, to type a Shakespeare sonnet, we should
rightly regard the occurrence as a remarkable accident, but if we looked
through all the millions of pages the monkeys had turned off in untold
millions of years, we might be sure of finding a Shakespeare sonnet
somewhere amongst them, the product of the blind play of chance. In the same
way, millions of millions of stars wandering blindly through space for
millions of millions of years are bound to meet with every sort of accident,
and so are bound to produce a certain limited number of planetary systems in
time. Yet the number of these must be very small in comparison with the
total number of stars in the sky.
Sir James Jeans. The Mysterious Universe. New York: Macmillian Co., 1930,
page 4. (Not seen; quote courtesy of Dave Woetzel.)
Koestler, 1972
        Neo-Darwinism does indeed carry the nineteenth-century brand of
materialism to its extreme limits--to the proverbial monkey at the
typewriter, hitting by pure chance on the proper keys to produce a
Shakespeare sonnet.
Arthur Koestler. The Case of the Midwife Toad, New York, 1972, page 30.
Pirsig, 1974
In a paraphrase of the gist of Henri's Poincare's philosophy:
        ...What are facts?
        Poincare proceeded to examine these critically. ``Which'' facts are
you going to observe? he asked. There is an infinity of them. There is no
more chance that an unselective observation of facts will produce science
than there is that a monkey at a typewriter will produce the Lord's Prayer.
Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into
values. New York: Morrow, 1974
But the paraphrase is pretty loose, since Poincare actually wrote:
        ``Le savant doit ordonner; on fait la science avec des faits comme
une maison avec des pierres; mais une accumulation de faits n'est pas plus
une science qu'un tas de pierres n'est une maison.''
Henri Poincare La Science et l'Hypothese Paris: Flammarion, 1908. Chapter
IX, p. 168.
Adams, 1979
        ``Ford!'' he said, ``there's an infinite number of monkeys outside
who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've worked out.''
Douglas Adams. The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, [chapter 9] London:
Pan, 1979; New York: Pocket Books, 1981.
Joshua Coxwell, 1995
        A potential source of confusion is the idea of evolution having a
``target;'' we have normally combined this activity with others, such as
Selection in Action, to address this. Cumulative SelectionOne of the most
frequent arguments one hears against the theory of evolution is that complex
forms and behaviors simply couldn't have evolved by ``random chance'' alone.
The point we must often get across to students is that evolution does not,
in fact, work this way; change is cumulative. Richard Dawkins, in his book
The Blind Watchmaker, dispels the myth of random chance by using the very
metaphor that opponents of evolution often turn to: the monkey at the
typewriter. This program models his suggestion that, were a monkey allowed
to type random letters, he would produce a work of Shakespeare very quickly
if letters he happened to type in the right places were preserved with each
attempt. With this program, students type in a phrase of their choosing and
observe how long a random phrase takes to ``evolve'' into their target
phrase. Below are some sample investigations...
Joshua Coxwell,
Ostrov, 1994
        A cat can collaborate with one intelligent mouse to produce an
infinite number of literary works on a computer. Unlike a monkey, who needs
a multitude of collaborators to produce one Shakespearian work on a
Hilary Ostrov, 1994.
Jeff Carrie, 1994
        MacDonald :
                My dear man I wish you were brighter
                you speak like a monkey at a typewriter
Jeff Carrie. MacDavis!
David Arthur Manning, 1995?

        If a hen and a half can lay an egg in a half in a day in a half,
             how many days would it take a furry eyed chihuahua to pick the
             seeds out of twenty bell peppers using the keys from that
             hypothetical monkey's typewriter who is randomly striking out
             in order to type out the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
Anon, 1995
        Animals have no spiritual development. Their species do not advance
or grow in intellect. As animals were thousands of years ago, so they are
today. If a monkey is left with a typewriter for a hundred years, he will
not produce a single intelligent sentence. Compare and contrast this static
existence with the life of man, which is one of perpetual growth of
character and pursuit of spiritual goals....
Why a Jewish Burial?
Michael XXX, 1995
        However, humans have been around for quite some time, and like the
monkey-typewriter cliche, people have stumbled upon elaborate methods to
trigger the spiritual emotion. These methods... Religion as a function of the brain
Tom Solomon, 1996
        Remember that old saying, ``give a million monkeys a million
typewriters and a thousand years and they'll give you Shakespeare?'' Well,
some say USENET is their first draft. It's nowhere near Shakespeare, but
many of the Frequently Asked Question files (FAQS) are excellent sources of
information. An extremely eclectic range of topics are covered--from
computer programming to training a puppy, meteorology to Courtney Love.
Sweet Briar College Library, Home Page.
Houghton, 19XX
        Come to think of it, there are already a million monkeys on a
million typewriters, and Usenet is NOTHING like Shakespeare.
Blair Houghton. [Quoted in Adam Rifkin,]
Fahey, 1995
        Imagine the utter dismay and consternation in the scientific
community if, after having come all that way, the finger of the key-thumping
monkey was off, just a measly once and by hitting a key just one row too
high on the QWERTY keyboard, so that Malcolm is ``drown'd'' rather than
``crown'd'' at Scone. It is an interesting question whether the monkey, by
hitting one row too high but coming up with a perfectly acceptable word, has
screwed up Macbeth worse than if it had missed either to the left or the
right and typed ``xrown'd'' or ``vrown'd.'' I betcha you are now looking
down at your keyboard to see where the letters c, d, x, and v are located
Noel Fahey, Home Page.
Stanley, 1995
        The most succinct answer is possibly the observation of the French
playwright Moliere.
                ``Writing is like prostitution. First you do for the love of
it, Then you do it for a few friends, And finally you do for money.''
        The June 1980 Esquire magazine had a monkey sitting at a typewriter.
The lettering across the cover asked, ``Is anyone out there not writing a
Jack R. Stanley. SCRNWRIT FAQ Chapter I - Art vs. Commercialism
R. R. Collier, 1995?
        Finally, other people were reminded of the library in Jorge Luis
Borges' story ``The Library Of Babel'', where a vast universe is described
which contains all possible books (assuming a finite alphabet and a fixed
book size the number of all possible books is mindbogglingly huge, but
finite) -- in random order. Most books in such a library would appear
written by the `monkey and typewriter' brigade, but all the coherent books,
whether actually written or not, are in there as well.
Buettner, 1995
        Imagine that you're in a cave a mile underground and you just
dropped and broke your flashlight.
        Now, imagine complete darkness. Not close-your-eyes darkness or that
of a moonless night but a darkness so absolute that your can wave your hand
an inch in front of your face and see nothing. The only sound is your heart
thumping and blood coursing through your ears. You're in a place so timeless
that the centuries tick past like seconds. If you were lost, your chances
being found or feeling your way out are about as good as a monkey banging on
a typewriter and accidentally writing Hamlet. You drop to your knees and run
your fingers over the limestone like a pianist playing rock and roll.
Nothing. One thought goes through your mind: I'VE GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE!
Steve Buettner, MAYAQUEST UPDATE FOR 3/21/95: St. Herman's Cave
Russo, 1996 In a novel, two characters discuss the glitch in a computer
which causes it to scroll an endless series of meaningless symbols:
        He sighs. ``It casts serious doubt on the old theory that an
infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters would
eventually write the Great American Novel, doesn't it?''
Richard Russo, Straight Man. Random House, 1996. p. 129.
        Was Borel the first? Was Eddington the first in English?
        Why settle for less than the whole British Museum?
        Why settle for less than an army of monkeys?
        See if you can collect versions refering to other works by
What is the point?
The topos is used to illustrate these conflicting points:
* inevitability
* impossibility, and
* some particular degree of probability, partway between impossible
and inevitable, which a mathematician would write as 0 < p < 1.
Make up your minds, guys!
Note on Borel.
It seems likely that Borel came up with the whole thing, but lots of people
think T. H. Huxley did. Research continues. Borel used it a lot from 1913
on, and at some point on shifted from the ``les plues riches bibliotheques
du monde'' to the Bibliotheque Nationale. (Borel proved the ``normal number
theorem'' in 1909, according to which ``almost all' numbers between 0 and 1
exhibit all patterns of digits in their decimal expansions; random choice of
such a number is equivalent to dactylographic monkeys typing digits at
random, etc, etc.) And David Bell, Professor of French at Duke University,
has written a paper which will appear soon in the Canadian journal, Texte:
``Monkey Business: From Borel's 'Singes dactylographes' to Asimov's 'The
Monkey's Finger' ''.
What is wrong with this page:
        It relies too much on WWW documents
        It relies too little on the printed word
        It should have a citation for each decade between Eddington and the
present, instead of a zillion silly citations from the last year or two.
Appendix: Works of Literature founded on the Topos
These are some pieces of writing based on the typing monkeys:
* Russell Maloney. ``Inflexible Logic.'' Short story, originally
appeared in The New Yorker magazine, 1940, and anthologized in James R.
Newman, The World of Mathematics.
A gentleman overhears a friend saying ``we know that if six chimpanzees were
to set to work pounding six typewriters at random, they would, in a million
years, write all the books in the British Musueum'' and decides to put it to
the test. His friend's authority: ``It may be nonsense, but Sir James Jeans
believes it ... Jeans or Lancelot Hogben.'' The chimps type out works by
Dickens, Pareto, Donne, Anatole France, Conan Doyle, Galen, Sumerset
Maugham, Proust, and so forth. A mathematician from Yale, distraught at this
violation of the laws of probability, assassinates the chimpanzees and their
According to the anthologizer, James R. Newman: ``...a famous statistical
whimsy. Eddington gave currency to it in one of his lectures but I am far
from certain that he made it up.''
* Raymond F. Jones. ``Fifty Million Monkeys.'' Astounding Science
Fiction. October, 1943.
                Not seen; cited in a netnews posting to alt.folklore.urban
and alt.usage.english by Simon Slavin, 31 May 1998.
* Isaac Asimov. ``The Monkey's Finger.'' Startling Stories. February,
1953, pp. 77-83.
                A science fiction writer is replaced by a monkey.
* David Ives. Words, Words, Words One act play, collected in All in
the Timing, New York: Vintage, 1995.
The characters are three monkeys, the subjects of a psychologist's
experiment, the object of which seems to be to reproduce Hamlet. Their names
are Milton, Swift, and Kafka; Kafka ends up doing the job. Which is more
implausible: that a monkey should type Hamlet or that Kafka should type
* Jorge Louis Borges. The Library of Babel. Short story. Describes a
library with all (infinitely many) possible books. No monkeys, no
typewriters, but some correspondents see a connection.
* Vikram Chandra. Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Boston: Little Brown,
1995. Novel, with an elaborate system of nested ``framing devices,'' the
outermost one of which is that a monkey (encouraged by the monkey god
Hanuman) types the story.
Thanks to Raju Raghavan and to the Digital Equipment Corporation. To Larry
Denenberg for the Maloney and Asimov references. For Terry Kidner for the
Russo reference. To Richard Polt for the Vikram Chandra reference. To Dennis
Ritchie and Paul Guertin for finding typos in the Borel and Poincare quotes.
To Michael Hardy for pointing out the Borel possibility. To Vikram Chandra
for moral support. To David Woetzel for the Jeans quote. To Ed Schwalenberg
for the David Bell reference. Your name HERE if you send in a contribution

Last modified 27 Sept. 2000.
Jim Reeds <>

Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Mon Oct 02 2000 - 15:53:53 PDT