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"Hanging out while the monkeys type away..."
A standard thought experiment from probability theory states that a million monkeys hammering a million typewriters (or a hundred, or a thousand) will eventually write the entire works of Shakespeare (or Dickens, or all the books in the British Library). This is a vivid enough mental image that it gets referenced a lot
One common joke is to assume that the number of monkeys required to write something is proportional to its artistic merit, so Shakespeare might take a million monkeys a million years, but three monkeys could write Atlanta Nights
in half a day. This isn't actually true (in fact, all that matters is the length of the text that the monkeys are replicating), but it is funny
. When we start throwing infinity in it (which is implied by the "eventually" in the first sentence of this page), then either one monkey is enough given an infinite time, or among infinite monkeys typing (for example) 400 pages each, one will type a particular 400-page text on the first try.
While they are part of the most common descriptions of this idea, versions involving "thousands" or "millions" of monkeys may confuse someone into thinking there is some kind of practical
possibility of producing Shakespeare with monkeys, if we could only wait for a few million years. Some paraphrases of the problem even forget to mention the "eventually" or "infinite" part and say that you just need "a million monkeys for a million years". In fact, even if you replaced every atom in the universe with a monkey and a typewriter, and they all typed a thousand characters per second, the odds of their producing Hamlet
(as well as the odds of any other specific text of the same length) within an dsafljcxzillion ancjlaeladhaclaketlillion years
are still incomprehensibly low
. However, such huge quantities of monkeys and time are no match for infinity
, which is where the magic happens.
The point is that the monkeys are flailing at the keys without understanding the point of the machine. Given enough time or enough monkeys, or both, one of them will accidentally hit the keys in the order "[shift]T-o[space]b-e[comma][space]o-r[space]n-o-t[space]t-o[space]b-e..." There is also some non-infinite yet unimaginably large number of years within which typing Hamlet
has a probability of 99%, but the chance still doesn't reach 100% until infinity.
A lot of writers will absolutely jump
on this as an opportunity for Word Salad Humour
. See also Who Writes This Crap?!
Robert Wilensky complemented this with the statement that "Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true." For further reading
, see Other Wiki
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- Bob Newhart had a comedy routine where this experiment was actually being run, and he was one of the monkey handlers. It ended with, "To be, or not to be? That is the gzornnplat."
- In Shadowchasers Ascension, Jeb uses this as part of an analogy in his book to explain populations of Hell. (This reality has a War Is Hell afterlife, where one side has an overwhelming advantage in numbers, but a Chaotic Stupid attitude that keeps them from prevailing):
Well, assuming the demons are truly infinite in number (which I doubt) here’s one way of looking at it. You may have heard the old parable that if you let an infinite number of monkeys type at an infinite number of typewriters, one of them would eventually write Hamlet.
Well, I suppose that's true. But they’d also type billions upon billions of pages of gibberish, and if by some chance a complete work came out, it would have as much chance of being a Shakespearean play as it would of being the screenplay for Howard the Duck or some equally terrible movie.
- From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: After Arthur and Ford are rescued from virtually certain death from asphyxiation in interstellar space, there is a sequence of bizarrely improbable events on board the ship that rescued them— because the ship is powered by the Infinite Improbability Generator. One of these events is Arthur and Ford being approached by "an infinite number of monkeys who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've worked out."
- Paper Towns. Q to Ben: "Getting you a date to prom is so hard that a thousand monkeys typing at a thousand typewriters for a thousand years would never once type I will go to prom with Ben.
- In "Inflexible Logic" by Russell Maloney, the main character assembles six chimps and puts them to work; in defiance of the laws of probability, they instantly start writing out all the books in the British Museum and keep doing so until a scientist goes berserk and shoots all of them.
- Alluded to in Matt Ruff's first novel, Fool On The Hill, which is otherwise chock full o' playing with trope.
- The Red Pyramid does it using ibises instead of monkeys.
- R. A. Lafferty once wrote a story referencing this idea. At the end of a vast span of time it seems that the monkeys have finally got it right, until someone notices a tiny error...
- Done by the Goliath Corporation in the Thursday Next books, but they considerably improve the odds by using (imperfect) clones of Shakespeare instead of monkeys.
- In Gulliver's Travels, one of the absurd inventions created by the Laputan intellectuals is a device for randomly combining words so that "the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study".
- Sort of inverted in The Neverending Story, where Bastian gets to see several mindless humans setting up heavy stones with letters on them repeatedly, as an entertainment for an intelligent monkey.
- Brought up in Dinoverse when characters start wondering how Betram accidentally made a time machine - he brings up this trope and says he must have stumbled on the right combination by pure chance.
Live Action TV
- The Colbert Report has a segment about how many different monkeys it takes to produce different authors' works. Apparently it's a million monkeys typing for all eternity to get Shakespeare, ten thousand drunk monkeys typing for ten thousand years to get Hemingway, and ten monkeys for three days to get Dan Brown.
- In the Doctor Who episode "Mawdryn Undead", the Doctor and Tegan discuss this trope as it applies to "a treeful of monkeys".
Doctor: You and I both know, at the end of a millennium they'd still be tapping out gibberish.
Tegan: And you'd be right there tapping it out with them.
- Mock the Week - Unlikely Things to hear on a History Documentary
"On Time Team tonight, we're in Stratford on Avon, where we've uncovered loads of monkey skeletons and some typewriters."
- In one episode of Muppets Tonight, we learn that the show's scripters are actual Muppet monkeys, mindlessly pounding at typewriters going "Ook-ack-ook!". Once they come up with a satisfactory script, Kermit lets them go touch the monolith.
Kermit: I'll never know what they see in that thing.
- In the That '70s Show episode "Battle of the Sexists", after Donna manages to score in a basketball game, Eric yells, "Pinciotti actually scores! Hell freezes over! A monkey types Hamlet!"
- In Veronica Mars, Veronica gets hauled into the police station for questioning about the death of "Curly" Moran, who she thinks she's never heard of. When she realizes that she actually does know him — in a seemingly totally different context — she thinks:
"Somewhere, those million chimps, with their million typewriters, must've written King Lear."
- The band Chumbawumba was supposedly named after a word typed by a monkey when somebody actually tried to do this in real life. (This was cited on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, but it later turned out it was only one of several false explanations the band would say in interviews to troll the interviewers).
- British band The Mekons released an album The Quality of Mercy is not Strnen. The cover shows one monkey sitting by one typewriter.
- In Dilbert:
- The title character writes a poem, and Dogbert says something along the lines of "You know, an infinite number of monkeys in an infinite amount of time could type out the complete works of Shakespeare. Your poem? Three monkeys, ten minutes."
- Another joke was "if you take an infinite number of monkeys on typewriters and give them an infinite amount of time, sooner or later you'll have a room full of dead monkeys. Turns out monkeys need feeding."
- Referenced in a FoxTrot strip where Peter gets a program to assemble random letters, his logic being that if you put enough monkeys on typewriters to produce Hamlet, then you can surely use a random letter generator to create a Hamlet book report. Paige then asks about one page which is even more nonsensical that turns out to have been Peter's attempt.
- The monkeys in the May 7th, 2010 comic of Bizarro end up producing The Great Gatsby rather than a work of Shakespeare, much to their supervisor's frustration.
- The Ricky Gervais Show has a segment in which Karl refuses to believe that the monkeys can ever actually write anything, so stubbornly that Ricky ends up storming out on him.
- The entire plot of the one-act play "Words, Words, Words", belonging to the collection All in The Timing, by David Ives, although for practical reasons it only uses three.
- The Simpsons:
- The Histeria! episode "Super Writers" has a short sketch about this.
- The I Am Weasel episode "A Troo Storee" has a scene where several monkeys with typewriters are trying to write a novel. Weasel manages to insult them by offering to pay them in bananas.
- In the Family Guy episode "The King is Dead", Peter uses a monkeys-on-typewriters reference to belittle the importance of art. This is followed by a scene in which several monkeys argue over which flower would best fit in the "rose by any other name" line from Romeo and Juliet.
- In Phineas and Ferb, "Cliptastic Countdown" combines this with Who Writes This Crap?!. Major Monogram demands who wrote the lines, to which Carl the intern replies, "Agent M, sir." We then see a monkey in a fedora at a typewriter, causing Dr. Doofenshmirtz to complain how none of the kids watching will know what a typewriter is. Monogram tries to excuse it by say it was cheaper that way, but Doof just continues ranting on the point that they would have to find a typewriter from an antiques dealer.
- This was actually tried in the Paignton Zoo in Devon in 2002, where six macaques were given free access to a (protected) computer. Their initial reaction was to pee on it or bash it with a rock; but in time they did start to get the hang of typing. After several months the results were several pages of gibberish, but the letter S as in Shakespeare was more prominent than others.
- A popular Play-by-Post Game is to try randomly mashing on the keyboard and see if you get a pronounceable result, or else try to type a specific word with a specific external organ, such as your nose, chin, or elbow. Go on, try it. We won't tell anyone.