The Translating Machine


It is August 1959. Richard Nixon just had a kitchen debate with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. Elizabeth Taylor has just taken her fourth husband. Hawaii will be admitted to the Union towards the end of the month. You open up the pages of The Atlantic Monthly and read "The New Translating," by David Woodbury, an account of progress made converting one language to another.

While it's technically about the long dream of perfect translation, it's immediately clear that the application is solely the bones on which Woodbury can fill out an account of the rise of The Computer.

It got me wondering. If you were one of our average readers in 1959, what did you think a computer was? If someone said, "Imagine a computer," what would have popped into your head? Woodbury's story -- because he provides so many simple explanations -- proves an interesting probe of the state of computer awareness in the late 50s among the educated magazine reading set.

Woodbury couldn't assume any knowledge of computers. None, really. Here, check out the many ways that he tried to make computers explicable to readers:

The computer is a highly complex electronic device, often filling many rooms, based on the principle of the adding machine. It does not merely add, however. It can make comparisons and choices between numbers and deduce which of many intricate patterns will fulfill specified requirements. Since numerical quantities can symbolize entities which are not numbers, problems in logic are well within the machine's range. This is where machine translation will come in...

The heart of the computer is its "memory," which stores tens of thousands of bits of information comprising a statement of the problem to be solved and instructions for solving it. A difficult problem may take months of human effort to arrange in machine language and place in the memory. But once the button is pushed, the answers may be out in minutes. Thus, the computer is best suited to the solution of great numbers of problems using a single formula covered by one set of instructions. In addition to numerical solutions, the computer can search through incredible quantities of data and find a desired item, relating it to as many other items as may be demanded. Language translation falls in this class of operation...

The blue-ribbon translating machine that will operate on the rules thus learned will work something like this: it will have a kind of "outer office," or reception room, into which individual sentences in a foreign language will be introduced. Here the text will be scrutinized, and all of its structural factors will be recognized and codified into computer-type data. The code will say, in effect, "for this group of words, Rule 948 applies," and so on. These code elements will then go on through the computer to a department of structural transfer. Here, equivalent rules in the terminal language will be looked up and codified. With this new codification the original word cargo will pass along to a third department, where the code will be broken down into a construction routine for the equivalent English sentence. At this point the glossary will come into play and the original words will be translated and meanings assigned to them compatible with their sentence structure. The final operation will be simply the printing out of the solution to the problem. Sentences will be used as the basic units because they are, in general, self-contained and complete as to sense. The translation should be near perfect...

At least half a dozen laboratories are hard at work in search of an electronic system for recognizing speech and coding it, no matter who talks, whether the speaker has a cold, is excited, or is underwater. When it succeeds, we shall be able to talk to a typewriter which has no stenographer in front of it or yell a number at a telephone and have it do its own dialing.

The ultimate in translation machines is thus not too hard to imagine. The final word -- and no informed engineer would be surprised -- will be the machine to which one can talk in one language while it simultaneously intones the translation in another, perhaps several others at once, depending upon what buttons are pushed. And if someday this ultimate robot, made a little tipsy by its own cleverness, should hear the lines

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,

we might find out what Lewis Carroll really meant.

Read the rest of Woodbury's "The Translating Machine."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

Image: Model of a UNIVAC, 1954.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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