A Machine for Computing the Names of 13,500 Ventriloquist’s Dummies

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We’re delving into the archives to take a closer look at some of Paul Spooner’s automata. This piece is from 2010.

This machine is reminiscent of one of Paul’s very first machines (1969) which was an art criticism machine that he made while at art school. It is A Machine for Computing the Names of 13,500 Ventriloquists Dummies. Paul tells us more about the mechanics and history of the machine.

Dimensions (mm): 270w x 450h x 110d

At art school I made a thing I called an ideas machine. It was like a one-armed bandit except that one arm was missing and it displayed words instead of fruit. The three drums rotated then stopped in a randomish way. On the first two drums were adjectives, on the third, nouns. I calibrated it with words I heard about me at the art school. Thus you got combinations like “RANDOM MECHANICAL OBJECT” or “INTERESTING CONCRETE DIALOGUE” or “VIBRANT MINIMAL EXPERIMENT”. There were 36 words on each drum, so it could produce 46,656 different combinations. The machine had a steel frame, two motors, drive bands, magnets and lots of little bits of steel that registered with the magnets to align the words when the machine stopped. It took weeks to make. I found this slide of it, less than half-finished, taken at Cardiff College of Art in 1969.

Vaucanson duck2

Wikimedia Commons

To me, it has the same forlorn look as the famous picture of Vaucanson’s duck, taken shortly before it was lost. We don’t know much about the fate of the duck but I know that my ideas machine was taken to pieces and made into other things. It was also a lot more rubbishy than the duck.

Now I’ve made another random word machine designed to make up names for ventriloquists’ dummies. The first names are taken from a list of comedy Christian names, then there’s an initial, followed by a bisyllabic surname.

The model for this type of name is that assumed by Groucho Marx in “Duck Soup”; Rufus T Firefly.

Although Colin Pitchfork, the first person to be convicted of murder using DNA evidence and Spencer Broomhead, a man once to be found in the Seven Stars pub in Stithians, lack middle initials, I had to include them because their names are in every other way perfect examples of the kind a ventriloquist’s dummy ought to have.

Too late, I thought of splitting the third drum in two, which would have produced such novelties as Pitchhead and Broomfork. And Stinkpop and Pramstorm and Moonscratch and 895 others.

This second machine took less time to make, has fewer parts and works better than the first. It uses a friction drive which is constantly applied to the 3 cylinders via 3 adjustable conical drums. A slowly-moving camshaft causes 3 levers to interrupt the cylinders at different times thus scrambling the stopping positions.

— Paul Spooner

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  1. Randall Rudd says:

    Hello Sarah, I hope all is wonderful in your world these days. I so enjoy reading the latest goings-on in the world of automata, and wish to thank you profusely for all your efforts in that regard. So thanks. I had hoped to retire and do nothing but create automatons, but my wife Karen decided to return to college and get a Psychology degree in a vain attempt to understand her husband. So, no retirement for a while. Meanwhile, I have dived in deep into the brand new medium of immersion (virtual reality movies) which is beyond exciting. If one must work, at least follow your passion and all that. I do have a question. Does Mr. Spooner have any plans for making a run of his Marvelous Machine for Computing 13,500 Names of Ventriloquist Dummies? I have often wanted to make such a device, but not if there’s any chance to buy one of Paul’s. He’s the God of all things Mechanical, so far as I’m concerned. I just had to ask. And to say hello, and hope all is well.

    Warmest regards as always,

    Randall Rudd

  2. Russ Morin says:

    I would love to see it in motion. Could we see a video?

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