Saturday, November 6, 2010

Infinite Monkeys

We are slowly running out of space for typewriters. It's fun to see so many, but they are seriously everywhere. This Royal Quiet Deluxe (a gift from Richard Polt) has taken a spot on the built-in bookshelf where the books of quality reside. 

I think it is fitting that this typewriter is next to a copy of Borges Ficciones. In this work there is a story called "The Library of Babel" that has a connection to typewriters. 

The premise of the story is that the universe is a never-ending series of hexagonal rooms. In this room there are the necessities of human survival and four bookshelves. These bookshelves contain books in which are printed a seemingly random selections of letters, spaces, and punctuation. If the rooms are truly infinite an accurate and complete copy of every book in the world in every language exists somewhere in the library. There are so many books that the librarians move around the rooms depressed and looking for the answer. Their behavior leads to the creation of religions. Some of the librarians, called purifiers, destroy books they deem heretical. As they do this they search for a mythical crimson room. The infinite-- and ultimately worthless-- arrangement of the letters in the books forces the people to try to find answers in an unanswerable universe.

The inspiration for this story comes from Borel's infinite monkey theorem. The theory is that if a monkey presses the keys on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time it will almost surely type the complete works of William Shakespeare (also on this shelf). 

It's fitting that a typewriter is sitting on a shelf next to a book inspired by a theorem that involves typewriters. A tenuous connection, yes, but a connection that makes me smile.

As for the typewriter this is your average Royal Quiet Deluxe from the late 50s. Of the 50s QDLs this line is my favorite for two reasons. First, they come in color crinkle paint. I might be one of the few people who loves crinkle paint. It is very had to damage it. I have never seen a document detailing all the colors available, but our classroom typewriter one is tan with caramel keys (all my names). The green model with white keys (as seen to the left) is particularly charming. The second reason why this is my favorite 50s QDL would be the red badge. I like the brightness of the red and the shine of the letters. This one is in very good condition.  As Richard mentioned, this typewriter was owned by a very cautious owner. There is barely a scratch to be found on it. It is as close to new as you can find. It ranks among our special typewriters.

Something else that I like is this poem by Koertge that alludes to the Borel theorem.

An Infinite Number of Monkeys
Ronald Koertge

After all the Shakespeare, the book
of poems they type is the saddest
in history.

But before they can finish it,
they have to wait for that Someone
who is always

looking to look away. Only then
can they strike the million
keys that spell

humiliation and grief, which are
the great subjects of Monkey

and not, as some people still
believe, the banana
and the tire.


  1. That is an interesting connection.

    I just found your blog by way of It sounds like the typewriter classroom project is pretty cool. My five-year-old has loved clacking away on my machines for several years now. I think that by searching the keys for the letters as he asked me to help him spell words, he learned a lot as far as character recognition and spelling.

    I look forward to reading more of this blog.


  2. Justin,

    Welcome! I do hope that you enjoy the blog. Everyone lights up when a typewriter is put in front of them. Some of my work colleagues cannot contain their joy when they see or hear a typewriter and they are in their 40s. I can only attribute it to the magical power of the typewriter.

    Great idea with our son. The great thing is that it's something you can do together! When my own son gets old enough (he's one right now) I'll put him on a typewriter too.

  3. Putting the typewriter next to Borges and Shakespeare is a stroke of genius, and that is a great poem, thanks.

    I just asked my sister whether her 5-year-old twin daughters would like typewriters for Christmas. She reports that one of them is very excited about it and is asking all sorts of questions about typewriters. The other showed little interest at all. As you may have guessed, they're fraternal, not identical -- one likes princesses and fairies, and the other likes construction toys (and typewriters).