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Alfred Long’s Patent ‘Metabolical Machine’

Spring, 1997

Among the several ‘mysterious’ objects in the stores of the Museum, there has long been a curious box of walnut-wood: a box of twenty-one compartments, each faced with glass, and each intended to contain a hollow block of wood, rectangular in length, and square in section. These blocks (of which two are missing) can be realigned on rotating the box by turning the rods, terminating in knobs, that pass through the supports holding the box above its stand.

The sides of the blocks in the Museum’s machine – which are said to be ‘coated with a composition which may be written upon with ink’ so that the ‘words may be rubbed out again at pleasure’ – bear, in hand writing, single words, such as ‘Tailor’, ‘at’, ‘Grandmother’ and ‘all’. In each of the compartments in which they sit there is a small peg that causes an irregular movement of the blocks as the box is rotated; they revolve freely because they are rather smaller than the compartments in which they move.

Neither the maker’s name nor a date of manufacture appear anywhere on the box. What the object is, however, is clearly stated on the front: ‘ALFRED LONG’S PATENT METABOLICAL MACHINE No. ‘.The absence of a number perhaps indicates that the machine was a prototype or a pre-production model but what is not made clear is the purpose of so strange a contraption.

Alfred Long does not have an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, but an inspection of the Bodleian and British Library catalogues reveals that an Alfred Long was the author of a twenty-three page booklet with the title ‘The Metabolical Machine and its Uses’ which has the subtitle ‘A Lecture delivered at the Establishment of Messrs. W. and R. Chambers, Pater noster Row, On Wednesday, June 7th, 1865, by Mr. Alfred Long, Lecturer at the Royal Polytechnic Institution.’ The imprint bears the same year and the address ‘London: Adams and Francis, 59, Fleet Street, E.C.’ and at the end Long quotes thirteen favourable press opinions of his machine.

Long’s pamphlet is his only known work; it is not, however, the only work in which there is a reference to his Metabolical Machine. A second reference to it appears in a nineteenth-century volume by a Thomas Prendergast with the title The Mastery of Languages or the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically, published in London by Richard Bentley in 1864.

Thomas Prendergast (1806-1886) entered the service of the East India Company as a ‘writer’, becoming a magistrate in Madras and then a judge, before retiring to Cheltenham in 1859. He became totally blind, but continued his literary work. He invented the ‘mastery’ system of learning languages, which was apparently based on the so-called ‘Ollendorffian’ system.

Prendergast’s early ‘teach yourself’ system had very strict rules and dogmas, many of which were directed against the learning of grammar. ‘The preliminary study of grammar is unnecessary’, he argued; ‘The power of speaking other tongues idiomatically is attained principally by efforts of memory, not by logical reasonings’; the ‘mere perusal of a grammar clogs the memory with imperfect recollections of words, and fragments of words’; ‘When a child can employ two hundred words of a foreign tongue, he possess a practical knowledge of all the syntactical constructions, and of all the foreign sounds.’ ‘In short,’ he wrote, ‘it is quite possible to speak a language grammatically and fluently without the wearisome study of grammars and other books.’

Prendergast claimed that he had learned the Tamil and Telugu languages of the subcontinent by often repeating conversational sentences, and his system was based on the process he thought was followed by children in learning to speak their own language: according to him, imitation and repetition of chance sentences which they hear spoken around them, then by interchange and retransposition of words to form new combinations.

Prendergast’s system must have had some considerable success because his Mastery of Languages reached a third edition in 1872 and a Handbook to the Mastery System came out in a fifth edition in 1882. Meanwhile, Prendergast had also written textbooks explaining how to apply his system to French, German, Spanish, Hebrew and Latin, all of which went through several editions in quick succession.

Prendergast’s reference to Long’s machine comes in a ‘Note’ at the end of the first edition of his Mastery of Languages. ‘While this work has been going through the press, a machine of singularly ingenious construction has been invented and patented, by an enthusiastic admirer of the system’ he wrote, going on to explain that by ‘adopting the theory of the quasi-mechanical nature of the operation by which idiomatic sentences, when learned by rote, germinate and expand into a whole language, and being experimentally convinced of its truth by his personal application of it to ancient Greek, Mr Long has devised an apparatus which, when turned on its axis exhibits an endless succession of the variations of four sentences of twenty-one words each.’

Long’s own instructions on how to achieve this ‘succession of variations’ was that ‘the first thing to be done is to select a couple of sentences, each containing ten or twelve common, useful words, and corresponding to each other in such a way that the words may be interchanged in the following manner:

When can your elder brother come ? How did his younger sister go ?
When can your elder brother come ? When can your elder brother go ?
How did your elder brother go ? How did your elder brother come ?’
Of course, grammatical endings had to be taken into account in choosing words which might be randomly combined to make intelligible sentences.

The Metabolical Machine’s uses were not, however, confined to the teaching of languages: ‘problems in arithmetic may be introduced into it, so as to lead learners gently on from numeration to the stiffest questions in the Rule of three’, stated Prendergast.

Shorthand and music were also adaptable to the machine, as Long explained: ‘Four marches have been composed by Dr. Bennett Gilbert on the plan of the coupled sentences. When we take away the first bar of any one of these marches, and insert the first bar of any of the other three in its place, there will be no disturbance either of the melody or of the harmonic progression.’ He went on to relate how Dr Gilbert had composed ‘four inter changeable melodies, which may be played either in 2/4, 3/4, common, or 6/8 time or as a hymn’ and how ‘the mere notes are placed in the machine, the melodies are suggested by each revolution, and harmony may be applied at pleasure.’ ‘This idea’, he enthused, ‘is not only useful to composers, but learners also may thus be taught the very root and groundwork of music in a very pleasant manner.’

Long’s machine belongs in a tradition that begins with children’s alphabet blocks, used to spell out words, and which includes the machine that appears in the speculative learning section of the ‘Academy of Arts and Sciences’ of the country of ‘Lagoda’, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This machine wrote books on any subject by means of slips of paper, glued to wooden cubes that held the entire vocabulary of the language of Lagoda.

The Metabolical Machine was deposited in the Museum in 1939 by the trustees of Dr L. H. Dudley Buxton, along with several manuscripts relating to Charles Babbage and a piece of his difference engine, which suggests that the machine may once have belonged to Babbage himself.

Francis Maddison

With thanks to Mr Eric Korn. Further reading: for Swift’s Lagodan machine, see George Basalla, The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 55-57.