'My avid fellow feeling' and 'Fleas': Playing with words on the computer

Computers have been used to process natural language for many years. This talk considers two historical examples of computers used rather to play with human language, one well-known and the other a new archival discovery: Strachey’s 1952 love letters program, and a poetry programming competition held at Newcastle University in 1968. Strachey’s program used random number generation to pick words to fit into a template, resulting in letters of varying quality, and apparently much amusement for Strachey. The poetry competition required the entrants, mostly PhD students, to write programs whose output or source code was in some way poetic: the entries displayed remarkable ingenuity. Various analyses of Strachey’s work depict it as a parody of attitudes to love, an artistic endeavour, or as a technical exploration. In this talk I will consider how these apply to the Newcastle competition and add my own interpretations.