Georg Philipp Harsdörffer's Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache, or the Five-fold Thought-ring of the German Language (1651), is composed of five nesting paper discs, each of which is inscribed with a set of word parts along its edge. The innermost ring contains forty-eight prefixes; the next ring, fifty initial letters or diphthongs; the middle ring, twelve medial letters; then, 120 final letters or diphthongs; with the outermost ring storing twenty-four suffixes. When spun, this simple mechanism can generate German words, producing as many as 97,209,600 different combinations.
On a practical level, Harsdörffer envisions the Denckring as part of his poetic process. The device appears in his Poetischer Trichter or Poet's Funnel (1648-1653), a book on different theories and forms of verse, then later in the Deliciae physico-mathematicae oder mathematische und philosophische Erquickstunden (1636-1652), a three-volume study of mathematical and linguistic games co-written with Daniel Schwenter. As Harsdörffer writes in the Deliciae, the Denckring "hat...seinen Gebrauch in Erfindung der Reimwörter / wann man die Reimsilben auf dem dritten und vierten Ring suchet und die Reimbuchstaben auf dem zweyten Ring darzu drehet" [has...its use in the invention of rhyme-words / when one seeks the rhymes on the third and fourth rings, and turns the rhyme-letters of the second ring]. Similarly, unlike the columnar text structure in books—indeed, if the Denckring were printed as a dictionary, it would fill hundreds of volumes—the interlocking rings allow the poet to identify words that match a particular rhyme scheme; provides immediate random access to the lexicon; and, as a mobile writing device, may be incorporated into the poetic games and performance pieces of the baroque poetry societies in which Harsdörffer participated.
Perhaps most importantly, in using the Denckring the poet is not locating an item in a list, but dynamically generating meaning in the moment. That is, the very motion of the poet's hand assembles a whole word out of dissembled parts, engaging the baroque spirit of inventio. More than a mere storage device, then, the Denckring is a writing technology, mediating the relationship between the poet's physical body and the generated text.
Harsdörffer's volvelle inspired Athanasius Kircher's foray into Lullian combinatorics and Leibniz's dissertation on ars combinatoria, as well as his later work on binary code and the mathesis universalis, an algorithmic language for solving philosophical problems. Yet the device's significance extends beyond its influence on seventeenth-century thought. By replacing the text of an authored poem with the structure that produces it, it is an important, though little-recognized, precursor to generative, combinatory, and reader-driven electronic poetry, and provides an early model for databases and human-computer interaction systems.
- The Beinecke Library at Yale has scanned the Denckring: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2...
- Volume 2 of Schwenter and Harsdörffer's Deliciae physico-mathematicae is available in digital facsimile through the Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek: http://diglib.hab.de/wdb.php?pointer=534&dir=drucke/224-2-quod
- Jan C. Westerhoff, "Poeta Calculans: Harsdorffer, Leibniz, and the mathesis universalis," Journal of the History of Ideas 60.3 (July 1999): 449-467. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_ideas/...
- Jörgen Schäfer, "Literary Machines made in Germany: German Proto-Cybertexts from the Baroque Era to the Present," Cybertext Yearbook (2006). http://cybertext.hum.jyu.fi/articles/77.pdf