Thurble's Fabulous Word Machine

A nonadmirer once described the writings of Thomas Carlyle as “the history of silence in thirty volumes by Mr. Wordy.” But Carlyle was a dry well next to the 3000-barrels-a-day prosifiers who regale us today. What ever happened to the simple declarative sentence? Now it can be told.

I was grumbling through the pages of the newspaper one recent morning—another day, another dolor—when a photograph caught my eye. “WHAT IS THAT . . . ?” the caption asked, “NO

ONE KNOWS — NOT EVEN THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION.” Wait a minute, I said to myself. I know; and so do a few others who once worked in the State Department and were privy to the secret of that fabulous machine. The odd-looking assemblage of meshed gears, jutting appendages, castiron wheels, and wire sinews could be nothing else than the long-missing Thurble Word, Phrase, and Memorandum Elongator.

None of us will forget that day in 1964 when it vanished from the office of the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, where, hidden in a broom closet, it had spewed out documents of such singular verbosity as to excite gnawing envy throughout the federal bureaucracy. At the time, its mysterious disappearance disturbed many interdepartmental friendships and thrust ugly rumors into the air. Some of us theorized that it had been spirited away to the Pentagon, where Intelligence no doubt had learned of its existence. Others attributed the theft to the National Security Council (admittedly, this accusation was based only on the striking similarity of style of the documents produced by the Elongator and those emanating from the NSC’s White House basement offices during the Bundy and Rostow periods). It was also bruited about that the device had been hauled across the Potomac in dark of night on direct orders from CIA Director John McCone. This theory has been given new life by a more recent report that a defecting CIA factotum secreted the Elongator among his extensive array of private papers, wigs, and wrist radios and, in a gesture of spite against his former colleagues, gave it, complete with operating manual, to Seymour Hersh of the New York Times.

We never did find out who stole the machine. All we knew was that the Department of State was suddenly bereft of the secret weapon that had helped it to win for several successive years the federal government’s most sought-after interagency award, the Edward Everett Cup.

The Elongator’s sudden re-emergence, in the dignified curatorship of the Smithsonian, naturally has revived interest in the mystery of the theft. Unfortunately, inquiries have shed little light on the matter. Officials at the institution will say only that the Elongator came to it by way of a scrap dealer in Bern, Switzerland. The scrap dealer acquired it (or so he says, perhaps honestly, perhaps out of fear of reprisal) at an auction of items accumulated in the Lost and Found offices of Wagonlits and the Swiss National Railways. The scrap dealer tried to find a buyer for the device in Europe. But its inventor, alas, had neglected to provide the Elongator with an affinity for the umlaut, the aigu. or the tverdy-znak. So he ottered it to the Smithsonian in return for a hefty reduction in his Swiss taxes.

Enter the genius of this story, Orval Thurble, an eccentric and recluse, independently wealthy, who chose to spend his last years at tinkering in a converted blacksmith shop on the island ot Martha‘s Vineyard. He had achieved modest notoriety as an inventor (the threadless screw, the India rubber toggle bolt), but Morton’s research into the “elongated yellow fruit” syndrome moved Thurble to his greatest achievement. He calculated the amount of time and energy consumed by man’s weakness for employing several words, sentences, or paragraphs where one would do, and was appalled. What a boon, he thought, if such expenditure of human resources could be eliminated. He reasoned that if man was capable of building machines to take him to the moon (“One pedal movement of limited scope for homo sapiens, one pedal movement of massive scope for all present and future inhabitants of planet Earth”), man surely could fashion a machine to multiply words.

Within a matter of days the “Tisbury Tinkerer,” as he was known, had assembled a rudimentary prototype of his Elongator. It was crude, limited in vocabulary, and afflicted with a disturbing stutter. In another three months he had fashioned a more sophisticated model. One historic afternoon, he demonstrated its powers by converting the Gettysburg Address into a one-hour-and-forty minute oration by the late Senator Everett Dirksen, and the Twenty-third Psalm into a Madison Square Garden rally sermon by Billy Graham.

Thurble watched the words pour forth. “What hath God wrought?” he exclaimed. (“You mean, ‘Is there some available data by means of which one might ascertain the scope and meaning of what we have just observed and whether that phenomenon can be deduced to have supernatural and/or divine origin?’ ” the machine corrected.) Thurble was ecstatic. But his euphoria was shortlived. He was above all a humanitarian. Like Albert Einstein shortly after he wrote out E = mc2, Thurble realized that he might be visiting on humankind a potential not for good but for evil. Imagine a Thurble Elongator working in every department of government, every mayor’s office, every college administration building, every faculty club, embassy chancery, judge’s chambers, and parsonage in America! In the world! It was unthinkable. So he decided on the spot to refrain from patenting his invention, to perfect only this one machine and to withhold it from widespread public ken.

Being only human, he could not resist the temptation occasionally to put it to work in the seclusion of his Tisbury study. One night, for example, he converted an issue of Reader’s Digest into a

most decorative, multivolume morocco-bound edition. On another he expanded a single Groueho Marx quip into a gossip column by Leonard Lyons, and a chance remark by Henry Kissinger into a best-selling book by Evans and Novak. Swearing each to secrecy, he loaned the Elongator now and then to friends who found themselves obliged to compose a commencement address or complete a Ph.D. thesis. He once tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Gary Cooper to experiment with the Elongator. Otherwise it never left his possession.

After Thurble’s death it collected rust and dust in a corner of the old smithy. But the machine did not languish there. A nephew of whom the inventor was not fond, a feckless fellow who had dabbled in bonds, real estate, and Madison Avenue before finding himself an uneasy perch in the Foreign Service as a reserve officer, had chanced upon Thurble’s study one night when the inventor was amusing himself by converting a remark of Tonto’s to (he Lone Ranger into a Senate speech on Ethiopian grain shipments by Hubert Humphrey. At that time the incident made little impression on the nephew. He thought it only some toyshop enterprise by which the old coot was whiling away senility.

A few months later, the young man found his career in jeopardy and began frantically searching for a way in which to re-establish his future. (He had been demoted to an obscure desk in the State Department’s Office of Manpower Utilization Reports after having had the presumption to edit a memorandum addressed to the Undersecretary of State by Dean Acheson.) The importance of what he had witnessed that night on the island suddenly struck the young man. He hurried to the Vinevard, searched out the rusted Elongator from the clutter of Thurble’s shop, swabbed it with Olum’s antirust solution, and smuggled it into his remote corner of the State Department.

Documents emanating from the young man’s office soon made him a celebrity of sorts. Fellow bureaucrats all over town began emulating his style, rising to heights of orotundity they’d never dreamed of scaling. The Elongator’s memoranda and position papers became models for all to follow. Hillsman in INR and Cleveland in IO, Korry in Addis Ababa. Galbraith in New Delhi, Fransworth in Ougadougou. General Harkins in Saigon and Sylvester at Defense struggled to adapt the Elongator technique to their own considerable terrains. The Alliance for Progress (remember that?) would not have come into being without the Elongator’s inspiration. J. Edgar Hoover was said to have demanded that Elongator-type prose be applied to his secret dossiers on senators and congressmen. It must be confessed that my own shop in the Department of State, the Office of Public Affairs, also became infected with the style. One day in February of 1963, we transformed what could have been a simple “no comment” into a statement on nuclear weapons that was later blamed for (or credited with) bringing down the Canadian government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

The rest is history, of a sort. By the time the machine disappeared from view, it had helped to transform a fairly common American weakness into a national affliction. Concise expression became the victim of benign, and then of overt, neglect. “Ask not what you can do about prolixity; ask what prolixity can do for you” became a watchword in government, in academic and corporation life, among the writers and publishers of novels, poems, and especially works on political science and sociology.1

The well-meant invention of the Yankee tinkerer taught its lessons too well. No wonder that it wound up in a junk dealer’s shop, unwanted, unrecognized, replaced by the real thing. How fitting, though, that the Elongator is now back home and enshrined in a venerable place to testify to man’s inherent superiority over machine.

The young nephew, incidentally, took early retirement from government service. He is comfortably off and at work for a New York publishing house on an ambitious new encyclopedia. He summers in Laconia, New Hampshire. □

  1. For some prime examples in the sociological field, see Benjamin DeMotf‘s “Sex in the Seventies: Notes on Two Cultures" (April, 1975, Atlantic).