The Symbolic Hieronymus Machine

The Weird Tale of the Device without Parts

You encounter them every day, but have you ever stopped to think about what makes a machine a machine?

Merriam-Webster defines a machine as “a mechanically, electrically or electronically operated device for performing a task”.  But consider for a moment, a device that has no parts or power source (mechanical or electrical), and whose function is defined with just lines and symbols. If it somehow miraculously manages to work, can it still be considered a machine?

This is the odd story of just such a device. 

To understand the Hieronymus Symbolic Machine you first need to understand the origin – a patented device of the same name that was not symbolic at all. 

Here’s where we meet Dr. Thomas Galan Hieronymus. His invention was an electronic device intended for the detection and analysis of minerals using a phenomenon he coined “eloptic radiation”. Aptly named the “Hieronymus Machine”, he was granted a U.S. patent in 1949.

Parts included a simple pickup coil, an optical prism, an amplifier circuit, and a touch-sensitive output device.

To operate the device you simply place a mineral sample by the pickup coil so that the “eloptic radiation” could flow through the circuit and be amplified by the prism.

Using a combination of a touch-sensitive plate and a tuning knob, you would then calibrate the device for the sample. Now with a known value or “rate”, it becomes possible to determine if that same mineral is present in future samples.

US Patent # 2482773- Hieronymus Machine

Dr. Hieornymus believed that all matter emanates a previously unknown form of radiation. He claimed that this eloptic radiation resonates at different rates depending on the material and that his device could be tuned to detect that rate.

Obviously, there is no supporting evidence for the existence of eloptic radiation. In fact, the machine doesn’t operate by any known principles of physics. However, users have nonetheless claimed success with being able to consistently determine the mineral composition of objects placed by the device.

If that’s not strange enough, here’s where the story really gets weird.

Enter John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding Science Fiction, a science fiction magazine published under a variety of titles since 1930. He was an outspoken proponent of the device and published an illustrated set of articles in 1956 detailing its construction and usage. 

It was at this time while testing the device with a volunteer, that he made an accidental yet confounding discovery:

During one experiment, he found that the Hieronymus machine appeared to work perfectly fine even though he’d forgotten to plug it into a power outlet.

Amazingly, with no power applied to the circuit, the Hieronymus machine still managed to produce results. In repeated tests, he found that some operators were still able to correctly identify the mineral composition of unknown samples that were placed by the device.

The device works well, repeatably, and predictably for many individuals – but it works just as well when it’s not plugged into the power supply as when it is.

Campbell developed a theory that it was not the physical components of the device that made it work, but rather the symbolic relationships of the parts with each other. He believed that it was the influence of the users’ mind, using some form of psychic force that was the operating principle.

After extensive testing, in the August 1956 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, he had this to say about the device: “the device works well, repeatably and predictably for many individuals – but it works just as well when it’s not plugged into the power supply as when it is.”

To prove this theory, he created a copy of the device that was entirely symbolic, using nothing but a schematic drawn in india ink to represent the parts of an actual Hieronymus machine. Quite astoundingly, while testing he observed fully equivalent results.

“I can’t defend, or even describe, the process by which I arrived at a hunch, these things depend upon relationship as a thing itself”

Over time many people have built their own versions of the Symbolic Hieronymus machine and have claimed similar success in seeing an effect.

If true, how could this possibly work?

I would put this phenomenon firmly in the “dowsing rod” category. For hundreds of years, people have claimed success dowsing for assorted objects and materials.  If there’s any effect, it’s certainly not the mechanics of simple bent metal rods. Perhaps operator intention, or psi, is the driving force behind Campells’s claims.

Campbell articulated his hunch in an article he published in the February 1957 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, where he stated, “I can’t defend or even describe the process by which I arrived at a hunch, these things depend upon relationship as a thing itself.” He also wrote: “The daring generalization here is that symbols and their relationships have a definite physical effect upon human beings.”

Is it that far-fetched to believe that symbols alone have the power to influence people? 

Some believe that at a very deep level, that reality itself is just a set of connected and self-referencing symbols. We attach meaning based on the spectrum of reality that we can actually perceive and then we codify it. This abstraction means that we’re not entirely objective and at times we’re not even aware of our perceptions at a conscious level.

Campbell was convinced that his symbolic device worked. He was also sure that whatever the process was that made it work was not based on physical science.

So this brings us back full circle: Is the Symbolic Hieronymus Machine really a machine at all?

By definition, a machine is mechanically, electrically, or electronically operated and performs a task. A simple lever is a machine just as much as a quantum computer. 

Perhaps, in this case, the leverage is the relationship between the symbolic components and the operator’s intention. And the task is the manifestation of the intention, which is to identify the unknown sample. 

Maybe Campbell had it right. 

But not everyone agrees, and certainly not Dr. Hieronymus himself. 

He’s quoted as saying: “I appreciate Mr Campbell’s interest in my work, but over the years since then, I have concluded that he’s set back the acceptance of my work by his continual emphasis on what he termed the supernatural or magic aspects…”

I’m not sure where I land with Mr. Campbell’s claims, but one thing that for certain is that a symbolic machine is super easy to build. Try it out. Perhaps you too might find your perspective on machines changing forever.

Building the Symbolic Hieronymus Machine

The nice thing about a device without mechanical or electrical parts is the inherent simplicity in building one. And of all the rigs I’ve built, this one gets the prize for most enigmatic – at least so far.

Check out this post if you would like to learn about the backstory of this device and what people claim it does. The focus here is just building one.

Here I present designs for two different versions of the machine:

The first was inspired by the original concept as detailed by editor John Campbell in the February 1957 edition of Astounding Science Fiction.

In this issue, he penned an article entitled “Unprovable Speculation”, which included photos and specifics on the construction of a device which led him to ultimately conclude “whatever it is, it isn’t operating on physical science principles”.

The second and even simpler design was inspired by this post by researcher Mark Boccuzzi, from the Windbridge Institute.

This piece is a fascinating read as in addition to detailing how to build the device, Boccuzzi suggests ways to use it to predict the future. (He discusses his attempt to predict election results.)

Astounding Science Fiction – February 1957

Design #1

Here’s everything you need to build the first version. As you can imagine with a symbolic machine, you can take liberties with the specifics of the design.

As long as the relationships between symbolic components are maintained, the end result should be the same.

Here’s what I used:

  • A small wood project box with a lid
  • A laminated schematic of the device components. You can download my template here
  • A small picture frame
  • A small canvas and foam board for mounting the schematic
  • A control knob
  • A brass rod with a width that can fit the control knob. (I used 1/4 inch diameter)
  • A laminated template for a dial gauge. I used Blocklayer for the design
  • A small block of clear plastic to represent an “optical prism”
  • A length of thread to represent electrical wires
Symbolic Hieronymus Device – Design #1
Symbolic Schematic

The schematic template represents the various physical components that were part of the non-symbolic device originally invented by Dr. Hieronymus. Here’s what the symbols mean:

The “sensor pad” represents a tactile pad that’s used to determine the “rate” for a sample.

The “rate” is a numeric value associated with a particular sample. When analyzing a sample or object, the idea is to slowly turn the control knob while you move your finger back and forth across the sensor pad. When you feel a change, resistance, or something that just feels different, note the number associated with the control knob and that’s the “rate”.

The rate value acts as an identifier for a particular object that is being analyzed. Once you have a known rate for a particular object or material you can use that to help identify other unknown samples.

The “witness well” is the location where you place the sample to be analyzed.

The rest of the schematic represents the electronic components that made up the circuit of the actual (non-symbolic) Hieronymus device.

Here’s how to build it:

First step, paint the project box if it’s not already finished. I used Rust-Oleum for this and chose a semi-gloss black enamel.

Next, print out the schematic template and laminate the paper. Once laminated, cut the paper to separate the “sensor pad” from the rest of the schematic.

Make sure when cutting the template to include a section of the “wires” that are at the bottom of the “sensor pad”.

Mount the laminated sensor pad in the small picture frame while leaving the symbolic wires outside of the frame (see the image below).

Set aside the frame. At a later step, you will be gluing it to the outside of the project box.

As a next step, mount the remaining part of the schematic diagram to the inside of the project box.

Some planning is needed as to where to mount the schematic. The location will be dependent on the dimensions of your project box.

The control knob will be on the outside of the box and connected to a shaft that terminates at the center of the circle that represents the “rate” on the schematic inside.

The laminated schematic will need to be mounted in a secure way to the inside of the lid so that the box can be opened and positioned correctly to accommodate the control knob shaft.

I decided to use a small canvas purchased from an art store. I glued a foam board with the same dimensions as the laminated schematic to the top of the canvas and then glued the schematic to the foam board.

Painted Project Box
Laminated Schematic Diagram
Hieronymous schematic in picture frame
Sensor Pad in Picture Frame

I decided to screw the canvas to the lid of the box to make it extra secure. The image above shows where the shaft for the control knob should terminate.

After mounting the laminated schematic, drill two small holes through the box lid. One is to accommodate the control knob shaft and the other is for the sensor pad “wires”. The hole for the wires should be located under the picture frame.

I used J-B KwickWeld to glue the picture frame to the box lid. It is ideal for bonding metal to wood.

Next, print and laminate a dial gauge for the control knob. I recommend using Blocklayer for this. They have an online template generator that can create customized gauges that can match the dimensions of your project box.

Cut out the gauge template and glue it to the lid of the project box centered around the hole for the control knob shaft. I used rubber cement to glue the laminated paper to the wood box.

Cut the brass rod to a length so when connected to the knob will extend about 1/4 inch beyond the mounted schematic on the inside of the box.

I used a 1/4 diameter brass rod that I picked up at a hobby store. The diameter exactly fit the dimensions of a knob that I happened to have on hand. The knob I used was similar to what you might find on a guitar effects pedal. Use a hex key to attach to the rod.

Push the rod through the hole in the top of the box and on the other end glue a small piece of transparent plastic that represents an “optical prism” that was part of the non-symbolic Hieronymus device design.

Almost anything can be used for this. I attached the plastic to the rod using a little dab of the KwikWeld.

The next step is to connect the “wires” from the sensor pad on the top of the box to the schematic leads underneath.

What to use for the wires? Needle and thread of course, as these are “symbolic” wires!

For the last step, I added some flourish to the top of the box. A decorative metal gear to represent where the “witness well” is located. This is where you will place your sample when operating the device.

Picture Frame with Sensor Pad Glued to Box
Radial Gauge Designed using Blocklayer
Control Knob and Brass Rod
Thread for Symbolic Wires

That’s all there is to the first design. You can see my version of the device below.

Symbolic Hieronymus Machine – Design #1

Design #2

The second version of the symbolic Hieronymus device is a marvel in it’s simplicity.

Just four parts are needed:

  • An 8 1/2″ x 11″ wooden shadow box
  • A laminated schematic of the device components. You can download my template here
  • A control knob. For this version, I used an older style knob that you might find on a vintage guitar amp
  • A potentiometer. Almost any type can be used, just look for one with a diameter that will fit your control knob

After laminating the schematic, glue it to the top of the shadow box. I found that rubber cement works well for this.

Drill a hole through the center of the “rate” dial using a bit big enough for the shaft of the potentiometer.

Place the potentiometer on the underside of the shadow box, run the shaft through the hole, secure it with a locking nut and then attach the control knob.

That is it for this design!

Schematic Template Mounted on Shadow Box
Symbolic Hieronymus Machine – Design #2
Underside of Shadow Box

Make sure to reach out if you decide to build one of your own symbolic Hieronymus machines and would like to share your design!