BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014

BBC Homepage
»BBC Local
Things to do
People & Places
Religion & Ethics
Arts and Culture
BBC Introducing
TV & Radio

Sites near Devon


Related BBC Sites


Contact Us

Monkeys fail to produce masterpiece
Sulawesi crested macaque
Six Sulawesi crested macaques took part in the experiment at Paignton Zoo
A bizarre experiment by a group of students has found monkeys cannot write Shakespeare.

They were testing the notion that monkeys typing at random will eventually produce literature.
News Features
Nature Index
Great Outdoors Index
University of Plymouth

Paignton Zoo

Vivaria Project

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

The notion that monkeys typing at random will eventually produce literature is often attributed to Thomas Huxley, a 19th-Century scientist who supported Charles Darwin's theories of evolution.

Mathematicians have also used it to illustrate concepts of chance.

Sulawesi crested macaques live in small groups in tropical forests and mangrove swamps.

They signal to one another by using a variety of calls, facial expressions and by raising and lowering their crests.

View print friendly version of this page..
get in contact
Lecturers and students from the University of Plymouth wanted to test the theory that an infinite number of monkeys given typewriters would create the works of Shakespeare.

A single computer was placed in a monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo to monitor the literary output of six primates.

But after a month, the Sulawesi crested macaques had only succeeded in partially destroying the machine, using it as a lavatory, and mostly typing the letter "s".

The project, by students from the university's MediaLab Arts course, received £2,000 from the Arts Council.

Computer keyboard
"At first the lead male got a stone and started bashing the hell out of it." Mike Phillips, Institute of Digital Arts and Technology
Eventually the six monkeys - Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan - produced five pages of text which consisted mainly of the letter "s".

But towards the end of the experiment, their output slightly improved, with the letters A, J, L and M also appearing.

However, they failed to come up with anything that remotely resembled a word.

"Obviously English isn't their first language, they pressed a lot of S's," said Mike Phillips, Director of the university's Institute of Digital Arts and Technology (i-DAT).

Mr Phillips, denied the project was a waste of money and said they had learned "an awful lot".

He said the £2,000 was spent on purchasing the hardware to set up a radio link so the activities in the enclosure could be watched live on a website.

"Compared to the cost of reality TV, this was a tiny pinch of money," he said.

"It provided very stimulating and fascinating viewing."

"They were quite interested in the screen, and they saw that when they typed a letter something happened."

Paignton Zoo scientific officer Dr Amy Plowman said: "The work was interesting but had little scientific value, except to show that the 'infinite monkey' theory is flawed."

The results of the experiment formed part of a larger project developed by i-DAT.

They have been published in a limited edition book entitled Notes Towards The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Article first published: 10th May 2003

Top | Features Index | Home
Also in this section
Community Life
Community life
Local people share their experiences of life in Devon.

Local News
BBC News
Two arrested in Newton Abbot crash

Police force 'faces going bust'
Residents oppose fields housing plan

Links and Info
Links & information
Useful links for locals and visitors.
From stunning views to nature - take a webcam tour of Devon.
Contact us
BBC Devon
Broadcasting House
Seymour Road
(+44) 01752 229201

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy