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.
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.
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.
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.