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The First Book Written by a Computer Program (1984)


Detail from cover of The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed, the first book written by a computer program.  Please click on image to see image of entire cover of book.

In 1984 American writer and programmer William Chamberlain of New York published The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed, a volume of prose and poetry that, except for Chamberlain's introduction, was entirely written by a computer program called RACTER that had been developed by Chamberlain with Thomas Etter. The program was given credit for authorship on the title page which read: The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed. Computer Prose and Poetry by Racter. Illustrations by Joan Hall. Introduction by William Chamberlain. The bright red cover of the paperback stated that this was "The First Book Ever Written by a Computer." It also called it "A Bizarre and Fantastic Journey into the Mind of a Machine." The blurb stated that the book contained:

"• Poetry and limericks

"• Imaginatige Dialogues

"• Aphorisms

"• Interviewss

"• The published short story , "Soft Ions" and more.

"You are about to enter a strange, deranged, and awesome world of images and fantasies– the 'thoughts' of the most advanced prose-creating computer program today."

The program, the name of which was an abbreviation for raconteur, could generate grammatically consistent sentences with the help of a pre-coded grammar template. Although certainly readable in the sense that each sentence displayed a competent grammar, any anxiety that the program could replace human authors would have been put to rest after a single glance at the computer-generated narrative:

"At all events my own essays and dissertations about love and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be known and understood by all of you who read this and talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject of this essay. We will commence with a question: does steak love lettuce? This question is implacably hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is a question: does an electron love a proton, or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting and critical response to this question is: no! He is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony and crazy about her. That is not the love of steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and neutron. This dissertation will show that the love of a man and a woman is not the love of steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me and fascinating to you but it is painful to Bill and Diane. That is love!" 

According to Chamberlain's introduction to the book, RACTER ran on a CP/M machine. It was written in "compiled BASIC on a Z80 micro with 64K of RAM." 

The book was imaginatively published by Warner Books, extensively illustrated with black and white collages combining 19th century imagery with computer graphics by New York artist Joan Hall.

Describing the "author," the book stated on its first preliminary page:

"The Author: Racter (the name is short for raconteur) is the most highly developed artificial writer in the field of prose synthesis today. Fundamentally different from artifical intelligence programming, which tries to replicate human thinking, Racter can write original work without promptings from a human operator. And according to its programmer, 'Once it's running, Racter needs no input from the outside world. It's just cooking by itself.' Racter's work has appeared in OMNI magazine and in 1983 was the subject of a special exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York. Now at work on a first novel, Racter operates on an IMS computer in New York's Greenwich Village, where it shares an apartment with a human computer programmer."