In 1928, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington presented a classical illustration of chance in his book, The Nature of the Physical World: “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.” In the 1939 essay, “The Total Library,” Jorge Luis Borges relates a variant of this concept: “a half-dozen monkeys provide with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum.” Over time, the quotation morphed into a more alliterative, memorable phrase invoking the Bard: “a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters to produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.” Huzzah! It is now known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time would eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. The probability, however, is very small: mathematicians have calculated to be one in 15 billion.
Such a theoretical discussion of probability begs the discussion of a real-world experiment. What would happen if you gave a half-dozen monkeys their own typewriters? Would they type anything of literary value? Glad you asked. In 2003, researchers at the University of Plymouth received a grant from the Arts Council to study that very question. The researchers placed specially modified computer keyboards in the enclosure of six monkeys, specifically Celebes crested macaques, at the Paignton Zoo (Devon, England) for a month. Vicky Melfi, a biologist at Paignton zoo, explained that the macaques (named Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe, and Rowan) were ideal animals to test the Infinite Monkey Theorem. “They are very intentional, deliberate and very dexterous, so they do want to interact with stuff you give them. They would sit on the computer and some of the younger ones would press the keys.” The researchers did not reward the monkeys for typing because they did not want them to become fixated on typing to the exclusion of other natural behavior. So what literary work did these budding writers produce?
The six monkeys produced only five pages of text between them. Alas, there was no iambic pentameter prose here; the pages were very monotonous, filled with the letter S. Near the end, they added some variation, adding the letters A, J, L, and M. There was nothing in the text that came close to being an English word. Perhaps they were writing the story of a hissing snake. Nevertheless, when they got bored of typing, they simply sat on the keyboards and defecated on them. This is, of course, nothing new — a mercurial author who is displeased with his manuscript and trashes it — in this case, literally shits on it! S’wounds!
We end this discussion of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, with computer scientist Robert Wilensky’ observation: “We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.” Touché!
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For further reading: Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing by Anthony Casillo