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[CODE CRITIQUE] Strachey love letter algorithm thread

Dear <1>,
You must be <2> again.
I will always be <3> to you.
Yours <4>,
  • Title: Love Letter Algorithm
  • Author/s: Christopher Strachey [1916-1975]
  • Language/s: Unkown
  • Year/s of development: 1952/1953
  • Software/hardware requirements: Ferranti Mark I Computer

Dears <1>,

Welcome to our code exploration thread focusing on the Strachey Love Letter Algorithm. The idea for this thread was whispered to me by @valerieschafer and @markcmarino on @edmondchang 's amazing thread.

Please feel free to join the discussion and share your thoughts, as I only became aware of this historical code a few hours ago. Therefore, I will do my best to present to you the code and some research questions that I have, but expect this part to be a work in progress that I really encourage you to jump into. Please correct me if any information is wrong !

For those unfamiliar, the Strachey Love Letter Algorithm, devised by Christopher Strachey [1916-1975] in 1952, aimed to generate personalized love letters using a set of rules and variables.

I’ll start with a little bit of context – you can teach code to a historian but not get the historian out of the coder – before introducing a reconstruction of the original code. Then, I'll review some modern implementations of the algorithm and start the discussion with some questions that I have.

A love letter from the University of Manchester

Christopher Strachey's Love Letter Generator, possibly one of the first work of electronic literature, generated love letters using random operations on the Ferranti Mark I Computer in 1952 (Sample 2013). This led to the appearance of a short love letter on the Notice Board of the University of Manchester's Computer Department in 1953 (Link, s.d.). The letter used random word selection to create poetic, yet nonsensical, expressions of affection:

M. U. C.

(Link, s.d.)

Strachey was a pioneering computer scientist and one of the early visionaries in the field of artificial intelligence (Gaboury, 2013). His algorithm aimed to generate personalized love letters using rudimentary computational techniques (Link, n.d.), showcasing early experiments in computational creativity and natural language processing.

Illustration 1 – By John Michael Boling
Illustration 1 – By John Michael Boling

His love-letter generator, although humorous and somewhat parodic, served as a critique of normative expressions of love, offering a queer perspective on the intersection of technology and emotion (Gaboury 2013). Through Strachey's work, we glimpse the beginnings of computational art and its potential for exploring identity and expression.

Recomposition of the code

The original source code of the algorithm was lost, but I'll propose a reconstruction here based on the work of David Link, translated by Gloria Custance (n.d.).

The algorithm itself was described in a letter written by Christopher Strachey to his friend and colleague, Robin Popplestone, in 1952 (Ibid).

Dear <1>,
You must be <2> again.
I will always be <3> to you.
Yours <4>,

In this code, placeholders such as <1>, <2>, <3>, and <4> are replaced with specific terms depending on the desired output. The algorithm allows for the generation of personalized love letters by substituting appropriate terms based on the context.

The template seems to follow a structured format for composing love letters, with placeholders indicating where personalized information should be inserted. It's worth noting that Christopher Strachey, the creator of this love-letter generator, utilized Roget's Thesaurus (Sample 2013) – which can be found here.

Modern implementation

PHP implementation

Thesaurus used by GingerBeardMan :

salutations1   | salutations2 | adjectives     | nouns          | adverbs       | verbs
Beloved        | Chickpea     | affectionate   | adoration      | affectionately| adores
Darling        | Dear         | amorous        | affection      | ardently      | attracts
Dear           | Duck         | anxious        | ambition       | anxiously     | clings to
Dearest        | Jewel        | avid           | appetite       | beautifully   | holds dear
Fanciful       | Love         | beautiful      | ardour         | burningly     | hopes for
Honey          | Moppet       | breathless     | being          | covetously    | hungers for
               | Sweetheart   | burning        | burning        | curiously     | likes
               |              | covetous       | charm          | eagerly       | longs for
               |              | craving        | craving        | fervently     | loves
               |              | curious        | desire         | fondly        | lusts after
               |              | eager          | devotion       | impatiently   | pants for
               |              | fervent        | eagerness      | keenly        | pines for
               |              | fondest        | enchantment    | lovingly      | sighs for
               |              | loveable       | enthusiasm     | passionately  | tempts
               |              | lovesick       | fancy          | seductively   | thirsts for
               |              | loving         | fellow feeling | tenderly      | treasures
               |              | passionate     | fervour        | wistfully     | yearns for
               |              | precious       | fondness       |               | woos
               |              | seductive      | heart          |               | 
               |              | sweet          | hunger         |               | 
               |              | sympathetic    | infatuation    |               | 
               |              | tender         | little liking  |               | 
               |              | unsatisfied    | longing        |               | 
               |              | winning        | love           |               | 
               |              | wistful        | lust           |               | 
               |              |                | passion        |               | 
               |              |                | rapture        |               | 
               |              |                | sympathy       |               | 
               |              |                | thirst         |               | 
               |              |                | wish           |               | 
               |              |                | yearning       |               |

Online version

2014 re-implementation by Nick Montfort

Pioneer in NPL and links to ELIZA

The Strachey Love Letter Algorithm, despite its simplicity, marked an important milestone in the history of computing (Sample 2013). It demonstrated the potential of code to mimic human emotion and creativity (Gaboury 2013).

In the Queer History of Computing, Gaboury link the Love Letter Algorithm to the ELIZA project (2013) :

In 1952 Strachey developed a love-letter generator that ran on the Manchester Mark using a random number generating algorithm, predating the ELIZA natural language processing program by twelve years. The project is considered by many to be the first example of algorithmic or computational art, though such claims are always highly contested.

Research Questions

Please take into account that this is a work in progress.
- How does the Strachey Love Letter Algorithm challenge or reinforce normative expressions of love and affection?
- What does it imply that the love letters are signed by M.U.C. as an institution in this context of having fun around heteronormative expressions of love?
- How does the randomness of the love letters created disrupt and challenge the normative expectations of how love should be expressed linguistically?
- What can this code tell us about the notion of coherence or meaning in the communication of love as it challenges the issue of authenticity and sincerity?
- Can we link it to existing chatbots in dating apps? Can a computer program generate love?


eddeaddad. 2010. « 2 Strachey Love Letters ». Gnoetry Daily (blog). 13 juillet 2010.

Gaboury, Jacob. 2022. « Queer Affects at the Origins of Computation ». JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 61 (4): 169‑74.

Gaboury, Jacob. 2013. « A Queer History of Computing: Part Three ». Rhizome. 9 avril 2013.

Link, David. s.d., translated from German by Gloria Custance. "There Must Be an Angel: On the Beginnings of the Arithmetics of Rays"

(there is no date or review number that I could find for the english version, hence the lack of proper reference)

Link, David. 2012. « Programming ENTER: Christopher Strachey’s Draughts Program ». Resurrection 60, mars, 23‑31.

« David Link Hearings Digitale Kunst 2007 - YouTube ». 2010. Consulté le 7 février 2024.;v=sfdPqYZZYh4&amp;embeds_referring_euri=;source_ve_path=Mjg2NjY&amp;feature=emb_logo.

Sample, Mark. 2013. « An Account of Randomness in Literary Computing ». Billet. de.hypotheses (blog). 2013.

Strachey, Christopher. 1954. « The “Thinking” Machine ». Encounter, octobre 1954.

Illustration :

Illustration I : Boling, John Michael. 2009. « Loveletters (1952) - Christopher Strachey ». Rhizome. 7 janvier 2009.


  • edited February 7

    @Titaÿna, thank you ! I would add to these questions, after having looked at the reimplementations by Montfort and GingerBeardMan: How is reimplementation a reinterpretation ? What does it tell us also about the legacy/ (and reborn-digital) heritage of Strachey?

  • @markcmarino pointed out to the very interesting piece by Link (, which is really stimulating, but how can we "queer" a bit this narrative and analysis through CCS ?

  • Thank you @valerieschafer for the responses and the suggestions.

    Regarding the reinterpretation point :

    Yes, I think both of them could be considered reinterpretations rather than reimplementations. At least with GingerBeardMan, the words used for randomness are explicitly listed.

    Since the original source code was lost, we can't determine which part of Roget's Thesaurus was used and how. However, I'm open to being proven wrong on this!

    The fact that the vocabulary was largely based on Roget’s Thesaurus lends a very peculiar flavor to the results.(Stratchey 1954 : 27)

    If other sources exist that could clarify how Stratchey selected the data or materials used for generating the letters, it might be possible to reconstruct it. If anyone has pertinent information, I'd be highly motivated to undertake this task. Perhaps it's partially what GingerBeardMan did, but I'm skeptical that the reconstruction effort would meet historian standards for re-implementation. I'll investigate this further.

    Work cited :

    Strachey, C. (1954, octobre). The « Thinking » Machine. Encounter, 25‑31.

  • @markcmarino pointed out to the very interesting piece by Link (, which is really stimulating, but how can we "queer" a bit this narrative and analysis through CCS ?

    The question of queerness can be approached through the question, "Can computers think?". In his 1954 article, Strachey discusses the Love Letter Generator, using it to critique what we now refer to as artificial intelligence. It's safe to say he would likely be dismayed by the current terminology used in relation to NLP progress and coding in general, considering the exercise to be a trick:

    It is clear that these letters are produced by a rather simple trick and that the computer is not really 'thinking' at all. This holds true for all programs which make the computer appear to think; upon analysis, they are nothing more than rather complicated tricks. However, sometimes these tricks can lead to quite unexpected and interesting results. (Stratchey 1954 : 27)

    At the same time, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Strachey, though he did not live openly, was a gay man. Consequently, the task of generating love letters, a seemingly straightforward task on the surface, is not merely a simple trick or a straightforward endeavor. It's a process that necessitates a more nuanced approach. In my research, I found some potentially beneficial hypotheses in the work of Wardrip-Fruin :

    "As Jeremy Douglass notes (2000), the love letter generator has often been used as an example in discussions of queer identity rather than considered carefully as a literary project. Certainly, there are reasons for this — Turing and Strachey were both gay, and at least Turing was openly so, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in England. It might also seem, from widely-reproduced outputs of the generator (e.g., that found in Hodges), that it was a love letter generator that 'could not speak its name' — the word 'love' being conspicuously absent.” (Wardrip-Fruin 2006 : 82)

    I'm still pondering whether the "trick" in generating love letters is to demonstrate that traditional love letters can be easily imitated, or if more exploration into Wardrip-Fruin is required.

    It might depend on the concept of whether the "trick", so to speak, in the creation of love letters is to effectively illustrate that the classical, heteronormative, tradition of penning romantic epistles can indeed be seamlessly imitated, thus challenging the unique, personal touch previously associated with them.

    Alternatively, I’m still considering that Wardrip-Fruin theory that this is a way to sign love letter without having to sign them is also a good hypothesis. It does go along with my research question “What does it imply that the love letters are signed by M.U.C. as an institution in this context of having fun around heteronormative expressions of love?”

    This remains an open question in my mind for now.

    Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2006). Expressive processing : On process-intensive literature and digital media. Citeseer.

  • @jarhmo pointed out to this stimulating post:
    where this sentence (among others) is also food for thoughts :
    "This paper focuses on the programmer’s embodiment of the code and how the programmer brings notions of the world into the code itself, thereby creating an invisible layer of embedded normativity".

  • Thanks @Titaÿna for this excellent topic!

    Riffing on algorithm antecedents in my paper on "'A WAY IS OPEN', Allusion, Identity, Authoring System, and Audience in Early Text-Based Electronic Literature" I wrote:
    "Over the centuries, sometimes purposefully, sometimes with serendipity, in electronic literature and its precursors, narrative devices emerge, submerge, and emerge again, from a tenth-century bishop’s dice-driven gambling for virtues; to allusions to the worldly Chaucerian narratives of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury in the dice-driven Chaunce of the Dyse (Hammond 1925; Mitchell 2009; Sergi 2011); to echoes of Chaunce of the Dyse in the computer-mediated output of an electronic literature-influential triangle of two men and a computer—as Lytton Strachey’s nephew, Bloomsbury-bred computer scientist Christopher Strachey, and Manchester University’s historic mainframe computer, aka the Manchester University Computer (MUC) (probably the Ferranti Mark 1, which was prototyped by the Manchester Mark I), and Alan Turing, the man who designed a hardwired, noise-based random number generator for the MUC—collaborate in a series of groundbreaking computer-generated love letters created with Strachey’s software and Turing’s hardware (Strachey 1954: 25–31)."__

    And then after riffing on Chaunce of the Dice for a while and returning to the code for the Love Letters

    "Sometimes, an influence can be suggested, but there is no definite proof. Oxford-educated Chaucer scholar, Eleanor Prescott Hammond, wrote the classic paper on Chaunce of the Dyse in 1925. Her work would very probably have been known in Bloomsbury circles. And (whether consciously or not) the shifting gender identities and texts of changing ideas of love, randomly assigned in the Chaunce of the Dyse, echo in the 1950s in the process of Christopher Strachey’s MUC Love Letters (Gaboury 2013)—and later occur and reoccur in the lives and generative poetry of the extraordinarily brilliant Fluxus couple, not-couple, couple, Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles."_

    Judy Malloy, "'A WAY IS OPEN', Allusion, Identity, Authoring System, and Audience in Early Text-Based Electronic Literature" in Electronic Literature as Digital Humanities. Dene Grigar and James O'Sullivan, eds. Bloomsbury Press, 2021. available at

  • @JudyMalloy Thank you for sharing these stimulating quotes (and the link to the book, so much to discover!) and for also opening up this long-term perspective with the Chaunce of Dyse.

  • Yes I know it is too late but... I was thinking that the difference between a classical poem analysis and a code analysis is also the role of the subject which is doing the job. A subject with body, a personal history, specific competencies. Where the standard critical theory probably tends to hide the differences to concentrate on the rules of the analysis, here we could try to do something different. Should the subject be taken explicitly into account? How?
    A simple example: I've stumbled upon Stratchey code after having done the same kind of program within the goal of explaining to children how "dices" (thanks @JudyMalloy ) interplay with grammar and style rules to create infinite advertisments (or wine labels, recipes, soccer play live comment or letters) which show a taste of intelligence.
    So my surprise, and my pleasure, in discovering Love Letters came, how can I say?, from belly and not from brain. I had the impression that his code was a rewriting of mine. I felt a kind of brotherhood with Stratchey: did we have the same initial ideas, did we have the same overall goals? Had he the same kind of happiness the first time he saw the code runnng and producing letters? Did he fell in his own trap of thinking (hoping) that there were someone behind the letter?
    While I'm not saying that is fundamental to be a programmer to read critically a code, I suppose that to put oneself on the page aside the text (and the history behind, the knowledge on that piece of code accumulated since its creation) is very important.

  • edited February 11

    This excellent conversation reminds me of a bit I wrote in the introduction to my dissertation, copied below:

    Strachey’s M.U.C. Love Letter Generator is widely-cited as the first work of electronic literature (J. W. Rettberg). Electronic literature scholars and historians of computation have made much over Strachey’s choice to generate these saccharine, over-the-top love letters with his program. Strachey, a close colleague and contemporary of Alan Turing, was also a gay man in the United Kingdom at a time when male homosexual acts were criminal and punishable offenses. Strachey’s generator is, noticeably, genderless, using non-gendered descriptive language and centering only the transient reader as “you” and the M. U. C. as inhabiting the first-person “me.” After all, the Manchester University computer, the signatory of all the letters, has no gender and is not concerned with the gender of its program’s readers. The letters generated are also comical and campy, a parody of the genre and of the act of declaring one’s love in the first place. As Jacob Gaboury writes in “A Queer History of Computing,” Strachey’s generator is “a queer critique of normative expressions of love, enacted through a kind of generative, computational performance, through a purposefully deficient simulation” (Gaboury). The generator itself is also a procedural critique—the program is “a parody of process,” as Noah Wardrip-Fruin writes in “Digital Media Archaeology” (306). Telling someone how much you love them is at once ordinary and absurd, a prosaic task that is nearly impossible to get right in words. Putting the M. U. C. to this task highlights the task’s absurdity and impossibility.

    Strachey was not just setting the M. U. C. up for romantic failure with his love letter generator, though. He was using what the M. U. C. could do—randomize, generate, calculate, print—to make a creative critique on what humans so often fail to do. As a society, we so frequently fail to support the expansive and often queer nature of human love and we fail, constantly and flamboyantly, to figure out how to tell those we love how much we love them. Strachey, with his generator, was showing us the role of creative computation in critiquing some of the qualities that make us most human.

    With an emerging awareness of what the computational can do for social critique, Strachey and his love letter generator set a tone and a sensibility for the programmers, poets, and artists who sought to use computational processes creatively in the decades that followed. In starting with love and using the M. U. C. to fervently, breathlessly, ardently lay bare the deeply human limitations of expressing it, Strachey’s generator makes explicit the rhetorical capacity of the computational to comment and reflect on the social and relational.

  • Dear all,

    Thank you very much for the very informative feedbacks. With Valentine’s day this week I really appreciate these discutions.

    @JudyMalloy, thank you for your insights into the algorithm's origins, its ties to literary and cultural traditions, and its importance. I also appreciate you highlighting the connection to the Chaunce of the Dyse. Your phrase "triangle of two men and a computer" stands out to me, as it illustrates how a love letter written by a computer could challenge the heteronormative way of expressing love.

    @Stefano, don't worry, it's never too late. Thank you very much for your insights. Your description of Strachey's algorithm as more bottom-up than top-down, as we sometimes describe in sociology, underscores the idea that the concept of randomness in computational creativity likely doesn't have a single origin.

    While I'm not saying that is fundamental to be a programmer to read critically a code, I suppose that to put oneself on the page aside the text (and the history behind, the knowledge on that piece of code accumulated since its creation) is very important.

    I fully agree. I believe historians can learn from code and, conversely, code can also provide insights to historians. Understanding the "coding" aspect of the code as a resource is crucial. The ClimateGate incident (Marino 2020) serves as a prime example of a non-programmer attempting to interpret code, or perhaps trying to validate a theory using the code.

    @cschnitz, thanks for sharing !

    Strachey’s generator is, noticeably, genderless, using non-gendered descriptive language and centering only the transient reader as “you” and the M. U. C. as inhabiting the first-person “me.” After all, the Manchester University computer, the signatory of all the letters, has no gender and is not concerned with the gender of its program’s readers.

    Your answer sheds new light on the questions I had. Your work enables me to highlight Strachey's playful yet pointed challenge to conventional expressions of love. You also draw attention to the algorithm's significance as a queer critique and its relevance to contemporary discussions about identity and expression.

    I was asked to present this code briefly at our plenary meeting here in Luxembourg, as it coincides with Valentine's Day. Given that the code pertains to love, I was somewhat stressed about not being able to adequately link the source code to queer history. Nevertheless, your work has offered me ample inspiration on how to proceed.

    Marino, M. C. (2020). Critical Code Studies. MIT Press.

  • A related text that you might find interesting, if not useful, is Jim Brown's "The Machine That Therefore I Am" (Philosophy & Rhetoric vol. 47, no. 4, 2014, pp. 494-514;, in which he explores the rhetorical action(s) of a nonhuman rhetor/actor when engaging in similar sorts of iterative document compositions, building on Erasmus' De Copia exercises.

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