Nowadays, there are innumerable web apps that automatically generate stories, movie premises, poems, and even fake New Age advice. But back at the turn of the twentieth century, before computers, it was a lot harder to automate creativity.
That didn’t stop people from trying, however. In 1916, a playwright, local politician, and inventor named Arthur Blanchard submitted a patent for what he called a “Thinking Machine” or “Movie Writer.” The little handheld device was designed to automatically generate movie plots: Simply spin its six dials at random, and the device would come up with a possible plotline. With a total of 1600 words, the Thinking Machine promised a mind-boggling number of possible stories.
A Popular Science article on the invention listed a few examples:
“Beautiful, stenographer, bribes, customs officer, adventure, recall.” “Benevolent, steward, captures, empress, affair, reflection.” “Bold, beggar, blackmails, broker, brawl, banishment.”
Blanchard thought his Movie Writer would revolutionize filmmaking, and it seems at least one journalist agreed with him. “Brains No Longer Necessary—Just Use the 'Thinking Machine,’" read a headline in Editor and Publisher. The article, which touted the innumerable uses of the Movie Writer, began, “A thinking machine that will actually invent comedy or tragedy situations, devise plots for movie scenarios, short stories, novels and plays, provide cartoonists with novel ideas, construct newspaper headlines and solve personal problems has been invented by the playwright Arthur Blanchard of Cambridge, Mass.”
It’s unclear whether Blanchard’s device ever inspired an actual movie. The New England Historical Society explains, “It’s lost to history whether the Movie Writer ever actually contributed the plot to any films, though it seems plausible that some sufferer of writer’s block may have picked it up at one time or another.”
The little story generator was never mass-produced. Still, it stands out today as an early predecessor of the random story generator, and an example of what many think of as a uniquely recent phenomenon: The desire to unite creativity and technology.