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The Great Automatic Grammatizator (short story)

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"The Great Automatic Grammatizator"Edit

by Roald DahlEdit

"Well, Knipe, my boy. Now that it's all finished, I just called you in to tell you I think you've done a fine job. Did you see what the papers said this morning?" "No, Mr. Bohlen, I didn't," Adolph Knipe said. The man took a newspaper and began to read: "The building of the great automatic computing engine, ordered by the government some time ago, is now complete. It is probably the fastest electronic calculating machine in the world today. The speed with which the new engine works," said Mr. John Bohlen, head of the firm of electrical engineers mainly responsible for its construction, "may be grasped by the fact that it can provide the correct answer in five seconds to a problem that would occupy a mathematician for a month. For practical purposes there is no limit to what it can do." Mr. Bohlen glanced at the long, melancholy face of the younger man. "Aren't you proud, Knipe? Aren't you pleased?" "Of course, Mr. Bohlen." "I don't think I have to remind you that your own contribution, especially to the original plans, was an important one. In fact, I might go so far as to say that without you and some of your ideas, this project might still be on the drawing-boards today. How would you like to take a week's holiday? Do you good. You've earned it." "Oh, I don't know, sir." The older man waited, watching this tall, thin person who stood before him. He was a difficult boy. Why couldn't he stand up straight? Always drooping and untidy, with spots on his jacket, and hair falling all over his face. "I'd like you to take a holiday, Knipe. You need it." "All right, sir. If you wish." "Take a week. Two weeks if you like. Go somewhere warm. Get some sunshine. Swim. Relax. Sleep. Then come back, and we'll have another talk about the future."


Adolph Knipe went home by bus to his two-room apartment. He threw his coat on the sofa, poured himself a drink of whisky, and sat down in front of the typewriter that was on the table. He leaned forward and began to read through the half-finished sheet of typing still in the machine. It was headed "A Narrow Escape", and it began "The night was dark and stormy, the wind whistled in the trees, the rain poured down like cats and dogs." At exactly that moment, his eyes and mouth began slowly to open, in a sort of wonder, and slowly he raised his head and became still, absolutely motionless, staring at the wall opposite with this look that was more perhaps of astonishment than of wonder. "Of course," he said, speaking aloud, "it's completely ridiculous." A machine cannot have a brain. On the other hand, it can have a memory, can it not? Their own electronic calculator had a marvellous memory. It could store away at least a thousand numbers at a time, extracting any one of them at the precise moment it was needed. Then suddenly, he was struck by a powerful but simple little truth, and it was this: That English grammar is governed by rules that are almost mathematical in their strictness! Given the words, and given the sense of what is to be said, then there is only one correct order in which those words can be arranged. Therefore, it stands to reason that an engine built along the lines of the electric computer could be adjusted to arrange words (instead of numbers) in their right order according to the rules of grammar. Then feed it with plots and leave it to write the sentences.


There was no stopping Knipe now. He went to work immediately, and there followed during the next few days a period of intense labour. The living-room became filled with sheets of paper: formulae and calculations; lists of words, thousands and thousands of words; the plots of stories; huge extracts from dictionaries, pages filled with the first names of men and women; hundreds of surnames taken from the telephone directory. He was working in a mood of exultation, moving around the room amidst this littering of paper, rubbing his hands together. On the fifteenth day of continuous work, he collected the papers which he carried — almost at a run — to the offices of John Bohlen Inc., electrical engineers. Mr. Bohlen was pleased to see him back.


"Well, Knipe, you look a hundred per cent better. You have a good holiday? Where'd you go?" He's just as ugly and untidy as ever, Mr. Bohlen thought. Why doesn't he stand up straight? He looks like a bent stick. "You look a hundred per cent better, my boy." Adolph Knipe placed the papers on the desk. "Look, Mr. Bohlen!" he cried. "Look at these!" Then he told his story. He pushed the plans in front of the astonished little man. He talked for over an hour, explaining everything, and when he had finished, he stepped back, breathless, flushed, waiting for the verdict. "This idea," Mr. Bohlen's lower lip was saying, "is very original — I might almost say brilliant — and it only goes to confirm my opinion of your abilities, Knipe. But don't take it too seriously. After all, my boy, what possible use can it be to us? Who on earth wants a machine for writing stories? And where's the money in it, anyway? Just tell me that." "May I sit down, sir?" "Sure, take a seat." Adolph Knipe seated himself on the edge of a chair. The older man watched him with alert brown eyes, wondering what was coming now. "I would like to explain something Mr. Bohlen, if I may, about how I came to do all this." "You tell me anything you want, Knipe. I'm here to help you — you know that." "You see, Mr. Bohlen, to tell the honest truth, I don't really care much for my work here. I know I'm good at it and all that sort of thing, but my heart's not in it. It's not what I want to do most." Up went Mr. Bohlen's eyebrows, quick like a spring. His whole body became very still. "You see, sir, all my life I've wanted to be a writer." "A writer!" "Yes, Mr. Bohlen. You may not believe it, but every bit of spare time I've had, I've spent writing stories. In the last ten years I've written hundreds, literally hundreds of short stories." "Good heavens, man! What on earth did you do that for?" "All I know, sir, I have the urge. The creative urge, Mr. Bohlen." "And may I ask you what you do with these stories, Knipe?" "Well, sir, that's the trouble. No one will buy them."


Mr. Bohlen relaxed. "I can see quite well how you feel, my boy." His voice was full of sympathy. "We all go through it one time or another in our lives. But now — now that you've had proof — positive proof — from the experts themselves, from the editors, that your stories are — what shall I say — rather unsuccessful, it's time to leave off. Forget it, my boy. Just forget all about it." "No, Mr. Bohlen! No! That's not true! I know my stories are good." "You'll pardon me, Knipe, but what's all this got to do with your machine?" "Everything, Mr. Bohlen, absolutely everything! What I want to tell you is, I've made a study of magazines, and it seems that each one tends to have its own particular type of story. The writers — the successful ones — know this, and they write accordingly." "Just a minute, my boy. Calm yourself down, will you. I don't think all this is getting us anywhere." "Please, Mr. Bohlen, hear me through. It's all terribly important. You see, on my machine, by having an adjustable co-ordinator between the "plot-memory" section and the "word-memory" section I am able to produce any type of story I want simply by pressing the required button." "Yes, I know, Knipe, I know. This is all very interesting, but what's the point of it?" "It's a matter of business, that's all. I'm looking at it from your point of view now — as a commercial proposition," Knipe said. "My dear boy, it can't possibly be a commercial proposition — ever. You know as well as I do what it costs to build one of these machines." "Yes, sir, I do. But with due respect, I don't believe you know what the magazines pay writers for stories." "What do they pay?" "Anything up to twenty-five hundred dollars. It probably averages around a thousand." Mr. Bohlen jumped. "Yes, sir, it's true." "Absolutely impossible, Knipe! Ridiculous!" "No, sir, it's true." "You mean to sit there and tell me that these magazines pay out money like that to a man for just for scribbling off a story! Good heavens, Knipel Whatever next! Writers must all be millionaires!" "That's exactly it, Mr. Bohlen! That's where the machine comes in. With our machine — when we get it working properly — we can take nearly the whole of this market!" "My dear boy, you're mad!" "No, sir, honestly, it's true what I say. This machine can produce a five-thousand word story, all typed and ready for dispatch, in thirty seconds. How can the writers compete with that? I ask you, Mr Bohlen, how?"


At that point, Adolph Knipe noticed a slight change in the man's expression, an extra brightness in the eyes, the whole face becoming still. Quickly, he continued. "Nowadays, Mr. Bohlen, the hand-made article hasn't a hope. It can't possibly compete with mass-production, especially in this country — you know that. Carpets ... chairs ... shoes ...bricks ... crockery ... anything you like to mention — they're all made by machinery now. The quality may be inferior, but that doesn't matter. It's the cost of production that counts. And stories — well — they're just another product, like carpets and chairs, and no one cares how you produce them so long as you deliver the goods. We'll sell them wholesale, Mr. Bohlen! We'll undercut every writer in the country! We'll take the market!" "But seriously now, Knipe. D'you really think they'd buy them?" "Listen, Mr. Bohlen. Who on earth is going to want custom-made stories when they can get the other kind at half the price? It stands to reason, doesn't it?" "And how will you sell them? Who will you say has written them?" "We'll set up our own literary agency, and we'll distribute them through that. And we'll invent all the names we want for the writers." "I don't like it, Knipe. To me, that smells of trickery, does it not?" "And another thing, Mr. Bohlen. There's all manner of valuable by-products once you've got started. Take advertising, for example. Beer manufacturers and people like that are willing to pay good money these days if famous writers will lend their names to their products. Why, my heavens, Mr. Bohlen! This isn't any children's plaything we're talking about. It's big business." "Don't get too ambitious, my boy." "And another thing. There isn't any reason why we shouldn't put your name, Mr. Bohlen, on some of the better stories, if you wished it." "My goodness, Knipe. What should I want that for?" "I don't know, sir, except that some writers get to be very much respected — like Mr. Erie Gardner or Kathleen Norris, for example. We've got to have names, and I was certainly thinking of using my own on one or two stories, just to help out."


"A writer, eh?" Mr. Bohlen said. "Well, it would surely surprise them over at the club when they saw my name in the magazines — the good magazines." "That's right, Mr. Bohlen." "One thing I don't quite understand, Knipe. Where do the plots come from? The machine can't possibly invent plots." "We feed those in, sir. That's no problem at all. Everyone has plots. We shall feed them straight into the "plot-memory" section of the machine." "Go on." "There's also a trick that nearly every writer uses, of inserting at least one long, obscure word into each story. This makes the reader think that the man is very wise and clever. So I have the machine do the same thing. There'll be a whole stack of long words stored away just for this purpose." "Where?" "In the "word-memory" section," he said.


Through most of that day the two men discussed the possibilities of the new engine. In the end, Mr. Bohlen said he would have to think about it some more. The next morning, he was quietly enthusiastic. Within a week, he was completely sold on the idea. And in six months the machine was completed. Now that it was ready for action, no one was allowed near it, excepting Mr. Bohlen and Adolph Knipe.


It was an exciting moment when the two men — the one, short, plump — the other tall, thin and toothy — stood in the corridor before the control panel and got ready to run off the first story. It was a story for a famous women's magazine, a solid story of a boy who wanted to better himself with his rich employer. This boy arranged, so the story went, for a friend to rob the rich man's daughter on a dark night when she was driving home. Then the boy himself, happening by, knocked the gun out of his friend's hand and saved the girl. The girl was grateful. But the father was suspicious. He questioned the boy sharply. The boy told everything. Then the father, instead of kicking him out of the house, said that he admired the boy's resourcefulness. The girl admired his honesty — and his looks. The father promised him to be head of the Accounts Department. The girl married him.


"It's tremendous, Mr. Bohlent It's exactly right." "Seems a bit sloppy to me, my boy." "No, sir, it's a seller, a real seller!" In his excitement, Adolph Knipe promptly made six more stories in as many minutes. All of them seemed entirely satisfactory.


Mr. Bohlen was now pleased. He agreed to set up a literary agency in an office down town, and to put Knipe in charge. In a couple of weeks this was accomplished. Then Knipe mailed out the first dozen stories. He put his own name to four of them, Mr. Bohlen's to one, and for the others he simply invented names. Five of these stories were promptly accepted. The money started pouring in. Knipe slowly and carefully stepped up the output, and in six months' time he was delivering thirty stories a week, and selling about half. He began to make a name for himself in literary circles as a prolific and successful writer. So did Mr. Bohlen; but not quite such a good name, although he didn't know it. At the same time, Knipe was building up a dozen or more fictitious persons as promising young authors. Everything was going fine.


At this point it was decided to adapt the machine for writing novels as well as stories. Mr. Bohlen, wishing now for greater honours in the literary world, insisted that Knipe go to work at once in this task. "I want to do a novel," he kept saying. "I want to do a novel." "And so you will, sir. And so you will. But please be patient. This is a very complicated adjustment I have to make." "Everyone tells me I ought to do a novel," Mr. Bohlen cried. "We're going to do novels," Knipe told him. "Just as many as we want. But please be patient." "Now listen to me, Knipe. What I'm going to do is a serious novel, something that'll make "em sit up and take notice. I've been getting rather tired of the sort of stories you've been putting my name to lately. As a matter of fact, I'm none too sure you haven't been trying to make a monkey out of me." "A monkey, Mr. Bohlen?" "Keeping all the best ones for yourself, that's what you've been doing." "Oh, no, Mr. Bohlen! No!" "So this time I'm going to make sure I write a high class intelligent book. You understand that." "Look, Mr. Bohlen. With the sort of switchboard I'm equipped, you'll be able to write any sort of book you want."

And this was true, for within another couple of months, the genius of Adolph Knipe had not only adapted the machine for novel writing, but had constructed a marvellous new control system which enabled the author to preselect literally any type of plot and any style of writing he desired. The machine looked like the instrument panel of some enormous aeroplane. So Mr. Bohlen made his novel, and it went according to plan. Within a week, the manuscript had been read and accepted by an enthusiastic publisher. Knipe followed with one in his own name, then made a dozen more for good measure. In no time at all, Adolph Knipe's Literary Agency had become famous. And once again the money started rolling in. It was at this stage that young Knipe began to display a real talent for big business. "See here, Mr. Bohlen," he said. "We still got too much competition. Why don't we just absorb all the other writers in the country?" Mr. Bohlen, who now wore a bottle-green velvet jacket and allowed his hair to cover two-thirds of his ears, was quite content with things the way they were, "Don't know what you mean, my boy. You can't just absorb writers." "Of course you can, sir. Exactly like Rockefeller did with his oil companies. Simply buy "em out, and if they won't sell, squeeze "em out. It's easy!" "Careful now, Knipe. Be careful." "I've got a list here, sir, of fifty of the most successful writers in the country, and what I intend to do is offer each one of them a lifetime contract with pay. All they have to do is undertake never to write another word; and of course, to let us use their names on our own stuff. How about that?" "They'll never agree." "You don't know writers, Mr. Bohlen. You watch and see."

"What about the creative urge, Knipe?"

"It's nonsense! All they're really interested in is the money, just like everybody else."


In the end Mr. Bohlen reluctantly agreed to give it a try, and Knipe, with his list of writers in his pocket, went off in a large chauffeur-driven Cadillac to make his calls. He journeyed first to the man at the top of the list, a very great and wonderful writer, and he had no trouble getting into the house. He told his story and produced a suitcase full of sample novels, and a contract for the man to sign which guaranteed him so much a year for life. The man listened politely, decided he was dealing with a lunatic, gave him a drink, then firmly showed him to the door.


The second writer on the list, when he saw Knipe was serious, actually attacked him with a large metal paperweight, and the inventor had to flee down the garden followed by such words as he had never heard before. But it took more than this to discourage Adolph Knipe. He was disappointed but not frightened, and he went in his big car to seek his next client. This one was a female, famous and popular, whose fat romantic books sold by the million across the country. She received Knipe graciously, gave him tea, and listened attentively to his story. "It all sounds very fascinating," she said. "But of course I find it a little hard to believe." "Madam," Knipe answered. "Come with me and see it with your own eyes. My car awaits you." So off they went, and in due course, the astonished lady was taken into the machine house where the wonder was kept. Eagerly, Knipe explained its workings, and after a while he even permitted her to sit in the driver's seat and practise with the buttons. "All right," he said suddenly "you want to do a book now?" "Oh yes!" she cried. "Please!" She was very competent and seemed to know exactly what she wanted. She made her own pre-selections, then ran off a long, romantic, passion-filled novel. She read through the first chapter and became so enthusiastic that she signed up on the spot. "That's one of them out of the way," Knipe said to Mr. Bohlen afterwards. "A pretty big one too." "Nice work, my boy." "And you know why she signed?" "Why?" "It wasn't the money. She's got plenty of that." "Then why?" Knipe grinned, "Simply because she saw the machine-made stuff was better than her own."


Thereafter, Knipe wisely decided to concentrate only upon mediocrity. Anything better than that — and there were so few it didn't matter much — was apparently not quite so easy to persuade. In the end, after several months of work, he had persuaded something like seventy per cent of the writers on his list to sign the contract. He found that the older ones, those who were running out of ideas and had taken to, drink, were the easiest to handle. The younger people were more troublesome. They were apt to become abusive, sometimes violent when he approached them; and more than once Knipe was slightly injured on his rounds. But on the whole, it was a satisfactory beginning. This last year — the first full year of the machine's operation — it was estimated that at least one half of all the novels and stories published in the English language were produced by Adolph Knipe upon the Great Automatic Grammatizator.


Does this surprise you? I doubt it. And worse is yet to come. Today, as the secret spreads, many more are hurrying to tie up with Mr. Knipe. And all the time things get worse for those who hesitate to sign their names. This very moment, as I sit here listening to the crying of my nine starving children in the other room, I can feel my own hand creeping closer and closer to that golden contract that lies over on the other side of the desk. Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.

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