A Gysin & Sommerville Question

Thursday 27 November 2014, 1:30 pm   /////  

I recently released Memory Slam, a set of four reimplementation of classic text generators. I did them over in JavaScript and in Python in the hopes that people would easily be able to play around with them, modify them, and understand them better through this sort of use. I’ve seen a few cases in which this has been done already, but first off, please let me know if you’ve posted modified versions of these, as I would love to see more. The license terms do not oblige you to do so, of course, they are licensed as free software. I’m just asking.

One question that remains is exactly when the program that automatically permuted phrases was written by Ian Sommerville in collaboration with Brion Gysin. I’m very interested in finding this out, but I do have other projects that are keeping me from doing archival or even deep library research into this. After discussion on the original announcement post, I’ve made a few corrections to this sort of metadata, but I still can’t figure out when this permutation code was first written. And since I don’t know which texts are the first examples of output from these programs, I also can’t tell how the permutations were ordered by the program.

The poem “KICK THAT HABIT MAN” was written manually in 1959 and other permutation poems were broadcast by the BBC in 1960. “Around 1960” is sometimes given as a date for the program or programs. However the Honeywell Series 200 Model 120, indicated in several places as the computer used, was not released until 1965. Please let me know if you know that a different computer was used or if you know the exact year in which the permutation poem programs were written.

And I can’t post something about these friends of William S. Burroughs, on Thanksgiving, without including this little prayer:


  1. I’m pretty sure DREAMACHINE happened after the permutation poem program, and the patent for that was 1961


    See also this comment


    I mean they wrote daily – there are hundreds of these letters – and they would say things like: ‘Go outside and do a dérivé; walk around and find all the blue objects and take pictures of them and cut them up,’ or, ‘Take your permutation poems and translate them into different languages and then cut them up’. And Gysin would write back: ‘You know, man, this cut-up thing is just not my bag, but this dreamachine! Let me tell you!’ He had already moved on.

    so I suspect 1960 is right, and instead the machine it was written on was different.

    Comment by Jason Dyer — 2014-11-27 @ 6:27 pm
  2. Ok, this is going to take some work.

    There are multiple dates given at different places, including two totally different dates given at two different places on Wikipedia:





    Comment by Jason Dyer — 2014-11-27 @ 7:19 pm
  3. The difficulty is that the original permutation poems, manually created, certainly appeared earlier than the DREAMMACHINE (also a Gysin/Sommerville collaboration), but when the first program was written is still not clear.

    I am not certain that the Honeywell 200 Model 120 was introduced in 1965, but that seems to be the most common date given online. And, I am not certain that this machine was actually the one used by Sommerville. Many online sources says so, but they could all be copying an earlier mistake.

    Comment by Nick Montfort — 2014-11-27 @ 7:45 pm
  4. I found a Honeywell 800 manual from 1960 (it is plausibly the actual machine the permutation poems program ran on) and I am nearly 100% positive the Honeywell 200 did not come until after.

    I would need more evidence to decide anything, though; it seems like it should be possible to figure out what computer was accessible from Sommerville’s location.

    Comment by Jason Dyer — 2014-11-28 @ 10:18 am
  5. I suspect that the mistaken Honeywell attribution comes from the English-language edition of Burroughs and Gysin’s The Third Mind (1978), where the “Permutations” section is introduced with the following headnote: “Poems printed on Honeywell Series 200 model 120 computer pro- grammed by Ian Sommerville; 2420 lines of text.” See https://archive.org/stream/W.s.Burroughs-PdfCollection/WilliamSBurroughsBrionGysin-3rdMind

    Comment by Dean Irvine — 2014-11-28 @ 12:24 pm
  6. I’d seen that note before at some point; I guess what it means is “the following poems, as printed here in this book, were generated on the Honeywell Series 200 model 120.”

    I can still think of two possibilities:

    • Maybe the first programs were written during or after 1965 on the Honeywell Series 200 model 120.

    • Maybe the first permutation programs were done earlier in the 1960s, and not on that machine. It wouldn’t contradict that particular note. Sommerville would in that case have reimplemented his earlier programs, from some different platform, himself.

    Comment by Nick Montfort — 2014-11-28 @ 12:40 pm
  7. Totally agree with your sense of the possibilities. You may be able to pull something from the Gysin archives at Emory. There’s a typescript of “Kick that habit man” (signed, dated 1959) and manuscripts of other “permutations.” Here’s the online finding aid: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/8zcnz

    Comment by Dean Irvine — 2014-11-28 @ 1:02 pm

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