A Wooden Computer: Presentation of the Kuhlmann Sonnet Machine



In this paper I shall try to describe and introduce the circumstances of the birth of a special object and its elements and to discuss the theoretical questions emerged. The object is a composite work of art including more pieces of art – that is how we shall try to fit up the machine after taking it into pieces, that is the basis of our approach; both in theory and in practice.

I did take part in the story as well, or at least I was a close beholder. I am one of the few who brought the reproduction of the Kuhlmann-machine into being in the autumn of 1999. And please do not forget to put a question mark in your minds after the words above.


The sonnet called The Change of Humane Things is a highly important piece from an early book of verses of a Silesian German poet, Kuhlmann. The original German version and the Hungarian translation make the textual surface of the machine. The strange mental world of Kuhlmann did involve doubts as to his healthy mind. In 1679 he travelled to Constantinople to convert  the Turkish Sultan Mohammed IV in order to attain world unity. Ten years later he was burnt at the stake said to be a heretic. This sonnet was planned by Kuhlmann himself to be rotating, combinatory machine which reveals all the wisdom of the world. He thought that all knowledge is in vain except for the statements composed of given elements put together accidentally the vocabulary of which including the combinatory instructing lines was supposed to be the extremely dense and mystical form of all knowledge.

If a poem-writing machine had been made anyway whatsoever, we do not have the traces. The Hungarian translation on the machine was made by László Márton revised by Péter Benits and Tünde Tóth.

The charge to make the multimedia part of 1999 Frankfurt Book Sale Hungarian pavilion was laid on Iván Horváth and his team. This is where the reconstruction of the poem-writing machine was made as an exhibit.

I got hold of the joiner and I had to explain him what the machine was like. The job was undertaken by a young enterpreneur Gábor Molnár with a profile of building, repairing and transporting of furniture. His creativity was challenged by the undoubtedly strange task. This was not the first thing to justify his fantasy, as earlier on he made table-clocks and hall-clocks wit wood covering and a special exterior.

The inscriptions and the letters on the machine were painted by Viktória Földi artisan and painter.

The machine was taken to Molnár for maintenance after returning from Frankfurt as the vicinity of several people of Hungarian, German and other nationalities left their fingerprints on it and one of the rolls of the inner moving machinery broke down.

So much for the credits, let us now take the machine into pieces.


This peculiar poem was found in a printed version from 1671, a volume by Kuhlmann called Himmlische Liebesküsse. Kuhlmann says the poem is a sonnet and adds that the reader can make up an endless number of poems with the permutation of the words in the middle thus making the sonnet work. He explains that “not even the most diligent scribe who writes down more than a thousand words a day could get to the end of taking down this unbelievable amount of substitutions in less than a hundred years.” The number of poems is of course not infinite but there is indeed a lot of them. There are twelve lines with thirteen one-syllable words in each and combining them in a discretionary way they can make up different poems.

What is the general principle of operation that makes the machine work? The poem consists of fourteen lines out of which the last two are utterly set resulting in a constant close. The beginning and the end In the first twelve lines are also fixed, so the rhymes do not change, and there are thirteen one-syllable words in the middle out of which one is chosen into the poem at a time. Let us look at the first line for the sake of simplicity as an example: “Pest and … are gone” is the is the set part,  the three dots make up the space for the words in between (night, mist, fight etc.) So the first line can be “Pest and night are gone”, Pest and mist are gone”, Pest and fight are gone”  etc.

This is the way the machine en masse produces pieces of art. However, surely enough, the idea of Kuhlmann has incomprehensible mistakes in order to achieve an unclear purpose, mistakes that makes us angry by virtue of their being too obvious and meaningless. Let us look at these first.

The first thing to say is that the created poems are each separate pieces of art logically and methodically but they are quite similar and when comparing them, they can be taken for variant readings of each other in the philological approach.. We should also not forget the fact that the author’s name, the title the last two lines and all the rhymes always remain the same. It is worth to think about a literary tradition in which these poems of the same author, title and rhymes are separate members so all the possible versions are autonomous pieces of art. These would form a considerable quantity in the literary tradition and only other combinatory pieces could be peers of them. This literary canon could easily be identified with the Kuhlmann-sonnet itself which would not be very different conceptually from understanding all the variations of the sonnet as one single piece of art.

The summary-like truth subject of the last two lines is completely independent of the possible previous twelve lines or at least of their varying components. This is extremely strange as these would be the factors that make the difference between the variations. Kuhlmann says that no matter how we change the words, the contents are not impaired, which means that he himself did not consider these changes important as to meaning. So we get a lot of different (?) poems with the same message. But a close that contains a constant moral that can be put after anything with anticipatory artistic truthfulness also arouses suspicion as being deliberately true for everything it is a public place rather than a great revelation. The last two lines being too maxim-like exclude the possibility of considering poem-generating as a constant re-interpretation and confrontation of the plastic ending with the previous combinatory parts of the poem, as the changes are too small. To sum it up we can say that the poem textually represents the same meaning or its absence disregarding the variations.

In my opinion one of the most important values of the text is that it uncovers our own concept of value. First of all it does not make up and finishes the piece just gives rules and it has a strong necessity of the contribution of a present creator thus not letting itself to be concerned as part of the past and at the same time it mocks the exceptional status and mystical solemnity of art and the person of the artist. The poem given through the cranking exists for the present beholder and a new beholder erases it with a single movement so no-one can read that one deliberately due to the great quantity of variations. By leaving the meaning the chance the sonnet refers to the fact that it would be a mistake to interpret it as an authentic and responsible product of one author’s personality. All these concepts of us, the author in particular is made relative as an objectisable different ego. Our machine can be taken for an ironical game. As Barthes puts it about modernism: “Any time the writer takes down a word-complex, the existence of Literature is questioned.” Is it?

We cannot believe seriously that this skeleton of a sonnet jointly with the set of words could make the man of that age feel that it is a machine, an authentic poem-creating medium. This machine is an example of everything promised to the literary thinker: humane creativity cannot be substituted by simple formulas and that modelling of the language and art is impossible no matter that there are certain structural grounds and fixed points the concrete meaning of which being disregarded exist as a universal collection of branch pictures. One can notice the mental process of generative grammars, the theory of non-finite realisation of elements of finite number, understanding the sonnet as an artificial language the competence of which is restricted to these few words and the performance of which to an irreproducible permutation. So generativity is interpreted with ironic scepticism and we cannot take this hollow and very faulty Kuhlmann-machine for anything else but the triumphant parable of its own failure. It is somewhat like those toy-books which contained human faces cut into three so that eyes, noses and mouths could be turned over separately thus creating queer, weird faces. In these books the phenomenon of different elements not fitting together became a source of humour. Sometimes I feel that the sonnet could lead to the same result.

I myself made up two versions. In one of them I consciously tried to create generally comprehensible metaphors which can be understood pair by pair and so it represents some of the great interrelations of life with its conventional visualisation. In the other I chose the words randomly and so it became an example of nonsense verse with its hardly decipherable statements representing the machinations of chance.

If we want to examine the text of the poem, we do this willy-nilly without taking the varying parts into consideration saying that they do not change the meaning fundamentally. If a man of letters was willing to take a close look at each word and their relations with the other words, he would have to deal with every variation which would probably take him a whole lifetime.

Strikingly enough the words offered for choice represent the basic qualities and feelings of the world, with denoting the poles and pairs of opposites defining the world or ranks and objects important for the man of the age. So this series of words give us a mirror of the world. The last two lines deal with the inevitable meaninglessness and mutability of accidental selection of words, opposites and the falseness of appearance, and that understanding this constant turning around and changing is essential for understanding life. The repeated opposing of the fixed beginning words in the first four-line section can also refer to an organising principle which keeps the things of the world in constant going and disorder. This secret organising principle is benign according to the moral of the closing lines, even if we only see the incomprehensible evil in the details: everything loves though everything seems to hate. All knowledge of Kuhlmann is restricted to a knowledge of mutability of all human things and a belief in its final meaning.

Kuhlmann does not use the bound and closed sonnet form in a bound and closed way (his poem is a mixture of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet) as if he wanted to aim at our comfortable literary custom or everything that wishes to be seen constant and immobile.

The two orderly finishing lines of the sonnet are as long as the first twelve lines but with each of the including all the words for choice. Thus the first twelve lines have 13+4 or 13+5 syllables while the last two have 16 syllables. After choosing the length of first twelve lines decreases to 5-6 syllables which really stands out against the 16 syllables of the last two lines. So the form might imply that this choosing one out of thirteen is not that unambiguous as the harmony of the number of syllables would demand the presence or virtual presence of the words not chosen therefore not included according to the rules. So how it is going with these one-syllable words? They are there and not there at the same time? The answer is yes. This means that the acceptor has to crank out more versions until he or she becomes aware of the fact that the words are accidental and there can be 12 different ones there and their opposites of course now, then, and in the future.. This knowledge about the constancy of changes acquired through the work of art will be the competence which will show itself in performative acts.

The different versions can create different atmosphere and meaning, but this is not sufficient reason to treat them as separate poems. Looking at more versions after each other however, can induce the feeling of a complete poem in us, the one poem which by itself (without selection) cannot be summed up. The different versions give us the literary mean of the main text, as if the reader averaged them.

 Theoretically I find the most problematic the question of the relation of the original Kuhlmann-work and our machine, a question which perhaps did not receive enough attention at the time of the building of the machine and it was neither a task of mine to think of.

The lack of en masse materialised Kuhlmann sonnet writing machines can be explained by obtuseness or absence of interest; this enterprise has never been an urgent problem, it is not a great deal or challenge technically to be really inspiring. We can also say that the social class that was aware of the description of the Kuhlmann-machine was not the potterer type.

So the problem is whether what we have done is a part of the Kuhlmann-machine or not. If it is, then we cannot take the machine finished only in the autumn of 1999, and the subsistent Kuhlmann-text is only a fragment no matter how complete its from and meaning is. This being a fragment is not anything like I tried to expound previously (that is, the inevitable step of actualising the very text of the poem, the permutation and cranking out the words as a meaningful part of the original piece of art), but something which is not intentional. And if bringing it into being is not part of the work, why do we bother? This is supported by the argument of reference to fiction in fiction, that is,  if we read about some-one painting a picture in a piece of literature, we do not necessarily have to paint the picture in question after reading it. We can do it but by doing it we also create a piece of art which belongs to us although it contains a strong allusion to that other, previous piece of art. There is an obvious difference of levels between referring to something and carrying something out.

Both answers are possible, I think that the Kuhlmann-machine was just as ready in its written form as it remained by building our machine. That is why there is a bit of confusion about calling our enterprise reconstruction, representation, reproduction or production, presentation and/or construction without the ‘re’? I do not know.

To avoid confusion I think of our activity as interpretation. Some explanations have surely been bereft of freedom by our one as the nature of interpretation implies it. (For instance the machine looks like as it looks like, and Kuhlmann is also possible not to have thought of anything like this. We might as well did good to the text, as the sonnet at issue is not a very tempting one to read in its text form with those plenty of separated words. The Kuhlmann-machine made by us which is going to be dealt with from now on is a pro-user one, it makes the original piece legible.


Originally the machine would have been made of bicycle wheel spokes which could have led to very different associations as the present one so this plan ended up in smoke in the August of 1999. A joiner was made looked for by Horváth and I found one. Our expectations could be summed up in the machine’s looking good.

As a definition we can say that the articles for personal use that have a further value from their appearance, other than their value in use look good. They also call this aesthetic value, and sometimes certain furnishings are said to be aesthetic by interior designers on certain points of the house. This not quite a quality of fine arts, it can rather be explained by some fin-de-sičcle theory of art trans-aesthetising reality. Although we should beware of references to these big but doubtful tendencies, we should also denote to what class we should put this phrasing. I believe that every object, be it of use-value or artisan work, having the traces of striving for trans-aesthetising the existing functions should be considered according to rules made for pieces of art.

The Kuhlmann-machine wants to be a piece of art, there are traces of the creator’s effort to trans-aesthetise the functions. And this is the point which no-one counted on: the maker of the machine wanted and did more than artisan work.

Please take a close look at the photo and then let us carry on. The machine was made by Molnár of a man’s height (approx. 6 feet high, 15 stones), its lower half parallels the legs, its function is a supporting one built together with the mechanism. The machine itself is from waist to head. The appearance is somewhat like the trunk of a tree. Stability is achieved by ballast put in the bottom to bring the centre of gravity down towards the bottom. This was necessary because to make the machine work the viewers have to be near to it and create physical contact. The current text of the poem can be seen front-wise, but as you can walk around it, Molnár made the inner metal bar and the wooden rolls visible by covering it with sawn pieces of wood so you can seen into the machine between them onto the hidden words. The inscriptions are bilingual, there is the German original and the Hungarian translation painted in blue and green, written in Gothic letters. Twelve rolls can be turned around on a bar inside the trunk and the words to choose are painted on the edge of them. The opening on the wooden face with the fixed parts of the lines lets us see one word which is one-thirteenth of the rolls turned around by our hands inside the artificial trunk. The rolls move on the roller bearings separating them, precise stopping at the given word is achieved by ballast. The rolls are made out of ash-tree, the covering plates out of beurré-tree, the pedestal out of pear-tree.

As this is a composite piece of art, the poem being painted on an object, we can witness the mixing of fine arts and language. Although most of the pieces of fine art also referred to some kind of text or historical, mythical or religious tradition (the text or story recalled by the picture or statue), this relationship was not represented by linguistic marks (the cultural hypertext was made of the invisible words of competence). The Kuhlmann-machine is special from this point of view, too: the text out of which it evolved remained there written on it.

The copyright recognises the proprietary rights of the author disregarding the medium – no matter in what form and in what fonts it gets published, the text remains its author’s. However, a text rarely receives such a stressed medium as the Kuhlmann-sonnet, and we can rarely say that the medium is a separate piece of art (like we can in the case of the Kuhlmann-machine). The object perhaps overshadows a bit the Kuhlmann-text as a meaningful, separate experience of a poem. Irnerio, the cicisbeo of the heroine in Calvino’s If a traveller at a winter night says: We make up objects out of books. Yes, pieces of art: statues, pictures, all the same how we call them. I glue some books together with resin and that is all, they remain like that. Closed or open. Sometimes I even carve them, bore holes into them. It is good material, books that is, good to work on. We can wonder how much the quotation is applicable to our case.

The gush-like object made out of wood is almost like an ironic glance for the strange, provocative text. Trash is a constant moving between originality and banality inside the arts and this could be involved in the moving of the rolls. This kind of burnished wood appearance mounts validly that kind of universally sage (although querying it in the background) Kuhlmann-text, while it turns its own being worked out into the interlocutor of a message of three hundred years. The well fashioned wooden form recalls the wall-guard texts written on wooden sheets (like Tidying up is a mania of the forgotten man. The genius sees through chaos.) and this also make the meaning of the interpretation richer.

The work of Molnár is worth a thought as a working piece of art. This thing only existing in interactions and provoking the activity of the viewer gives its own presentation a happening kind of character especially in such an exorbitantly visited place as the Hungarian pavilion of the book sale was. However strange it may sound, the original intention for interactive creating of a text and the call for poem writing with dice, that is, the material realisation, both refer to a happening. And the feature-likeness ends up in an unintended punch-line: the machine does outrage anybody, no-one’s conventions are made fighting opponents. It rather shows temporal distances and ones in thinking: the secondary provocative character is only tertiary in the machine of Molnár. One of the reasons for this could be that this piece of art as an exhibit only makes its own reception possible in a common space, and so it contradicts the contemplative reading strategy which combines the reception of the text with solitude, seclusion, leisurely and tranquil interpretation and thinking which is regarded to be ideal nowadays. So by writing the Kuhlmann-sonnet on an exhibit we fundamentally change the rules of its reception and perhaps we get the receptor out of the rut.


The machine has gone through the triumphal march and returned home after fulfilling its duty of fidelity: it symbolised a convincing relationship between the German host and the Hungarian guest (because of its creators), and it was also bilingual. We were exposed to the public gaze.

It is not easy for the contemporary pieces of art. No-one is quite sure about the criteria based on which we keep the objects, pieces in 2000 and after. The odds are against the machine as its creator is not famous in artist-critic circles. This is also hindered by the fact that Molnár is not qualified or well-informed about artistic life, and the critic by defining the intention of the creator with the qualifications of the creator can get to a negative conclusion. Although I think of Molnár’s creation as an interesting enterprise in cultural history, he is more or less not the one who deserves credit for it, he only carried out a commission. What is more, there is not much chance for his continuing his life as an active artist and creating his oeuvre. To cut it short, our executor does not fit to what can be expected from an artist, and it would be hard to make accept that a piece of art was born without a single artist contributing to it, and the only thing we have is the credits. The Kuhlmann-machine is not adequate for our author-principled canon.. It would be worth to weigh the pros and cons of a title-principled or subject-principled approach.

After all this and on top of all this it is enough to say that the Kuhlmann-machine calls us to play and it encourages every-one to think. And let me warn you that the story of the machine is not yet finished! What if a painter paints a picture about Molnár’s Kuhlmann-machine or some-one writes a poem of praise about it?

As Irnerio finishes his monologue in Calvino: All of my works are put in a book now. So it will be a book with the photos of all my books. And when it is published, I will make sculptures of it, many a many.

Thank you for your attention.


Thanks to András Márton Baló,

for his contribution and help in the

english version