In the 1830s, John Clark, a Somerset inventor and lover of literature, designed and built the Eureka, a machine for making Latin poetry. Clark’s device, a true mechanical curiosity, capitalised on the mid-Victorian ‘mania’ for classical poetry, a staple of nineteenth-century liberal education, mainly as conducted in public or endowed schools. Not only were the hexameters of Homer and other ancient poets the subject of classroom translation and composition exercises, causing many a schoolboy to behave like a machine churning out a seemingly endless series of Latin verses, but they were also central to a highly politicised debate about how the place of classical poetry in the modern world. If hexameters—lines of poetry comprising six metrical feet arranged in a particular pattern of ‘short’ and ‘long’ syllables—were the rhythmical foundation of the great classical epics, thought by many to be the most noble form of literary accomplishment, why shouldn’t they endure in translated form for modern readers? Beyond that, might they be, as the Victorian sage Matthew Arnold suggested, a viable poetic form for Victorian poetry? Some poets embraced the hexameter line, translating the great epics into English versions of it and even composing their own original poems in its long, distinctive lines. Others, however, believed that hexameters and the classical literary heritage to which they belonged were a worn-out relic, not suited to modern poetry, and several critics of liberal education even advocated the scrapping of hexameter exercises from schools’ curricula.

In choosing to make a poetry machine that produced not any metrical pattern but hexameters specifically, Clark invented a device very much of its time. What is more, Clark may have been aware of the debates circulating about classical education and its ostensibly ‘mechanistic’ instruction practices and exercises. If schoolboys doing their daily verse were thought to be engaged in mindless assembly tasks, where they selected words merely for the metrical values and them combined them formulaically into sometime absurd poems, then weren’t they being reduced to a machine-like drudgery? Why couldn’t a machine just do their exercises for them? In essence, that’s what Clark’s Eureka did. Like a pupil using his dictionary and compendium of classical measures to make a poem, the Eureka contains a word bank of its own: an alphabet printed on wooden staves. When the machine is set in motion, the gears raise and lower the staves. Their relative alignment when they come to rest reveals, in a window on the front of the machine, a hexameter line of verse.

In automating the composition of hexameters, Clark appears to have drawn on a longstanding method of composing Latin verses—one that involved no knowledge of the Latin language or its meters. As early as 1677, John Peter’s Artificial Versifying, Or, the School-Boy’s Recreation set out ‘A New Way to make Latin Verses’. By following Peter’s step-by-step process, which involved selecting letters in sequence from a set of pre-arranged ‘Versifying Tables’, ‘Any one of ordinary Capacity, that only knows the A.B.C. and can Count 9 (though he understands not one word of Latin, or what a Verse means) may be plainly taught, (and in as little a time as this is Reading over,) how to make Hundreds of Hexameter Verses, which shall be True Latin, True Verse, and good Sense.’ In effect, the Eureka mechanizes this process. In the place of a table of letters, such as the ones described above, the Eureka offered a wooden drum, and radiating from its centre were so-called stop wires of varying lengths; these determined how far a stave would descend and, thus, which letter among the many printed on it would be visible to viewers. This interconnected system of staves, wires, and drums enable the Eureka to compose a vast amount of hexameters—over twenty-six million permutations.

Unlike the schoolboy, though, who could conceivably produce many different varieties of hexameter verse by choosing words with different combinations of long and short syllables, the Eureka composed every line in the same metrical sequence. The arrangement of its words might vary greatly, but its metre was fixed—more formulaic, some might say, than even the most unimaginative pupil in a Victorian classical school.