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One of A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems


The device One of A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems is an exhaustive computational transcription of the singular book Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), conceived by french novelist Raymond Queneau in 1961.

Just as in the original version, it is built to aggregate different combinations of texts. 

produced by: Eden Chahal

Introduction: the book and the author

Raymond Queneau was a french novelist and poet, famous for co-founding the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Litterature POtentielle). The purpose of the group was to challenge the existing forms of literature, by discovering new potentialities to language. They are famous for applying mathematical challenges to language. The work we are studying was the starting point for those experiments. Mathematician Francois le Lionnais helped Queneau establishing a structure for his poems. Together they built a set of 10 sonnets, with each line on a separate strip (like a flipbook of text). They follow the same rhyme scheme and the same rhyme sounds and can therefore be combined infinitely, or rather, 10 times to the power of 14 (the number of lines in the poem), for a total of different poems.

Before his death in 1976, Queneau had started looking at the possibilities computers could bring to his practice. 

This project is an attempt at re-interpreting the book that initiated his curiosity.


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Concept and background research

This project is a computational transcription of the book, making use of creative coding tools to broadcast it in an alternative way.

The book itself is already computational in a way and can be found as a reference in several pieces of research focussing on computation and literature. An important point to note is that the text is integrally transcribed, with no changes. This leads to an open question when considering and developing tools for artistic expression. When R.Queneau wrote the text, he was guided by the framework of the book. How much does the support guide the content? Would he write a different text if it was meant to be received in a computational device? 

For example,  could the limitations of strings sent through serial be a guide to the length of each sentence?


The experience

The question of the embodiment is central in this project. Though it can be considered as a first prototype, it already has the main directions and intentions for the device. 

A paper structure frames a one-line text. The user’s attention is fully directed towards this sentence. On the right side of the black screen, an encoder will let them scroll through the 10 potential verses. Once satisfied, a button can be pressed, it will store that choice, and move to the next line. The user might not remember the previous sentences, making the experience close to one of an exquisite cadaver, and doesn’t know where they stand in the poem.

When the poem is complete, it is printed by the integrated receipt printer. You have built One of A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, feel free to take your composition! 

The use of paper is part of the "Re-Imagining" of the artwork. Since books are not only receptacles to texts, they are objects, and in the case of Queneau’s, a design piece. With the choice of paper materials, I wanted to bring the sensitive experience of reading and touching paper to the object. 

The receipt printer adds a second type of relation to paper, by diverting a common, daily use of paper and text, though certainly not for literature. It has the singular feature of fading through time. 



The technical components: a list of ingredients

  • AdaFruit Tiny Thermal Printer
  • Thermal Paper Rolls
  • Arduino Uno 
  • Wires
  • Rotary Encoder with a cap
  • Push Button with a cap
  • Power Supply: -!-Important, 9 Volts, 2A (didn’t work with less)
  • USB to TTL adapter (to use the printer in openFrameworks without communicating with Arduino)
  • Female DC Power adapter - 2.1mm jack to screw terminal block (to connect the printer to Power)


Despite the apparent simplicity of the project I faced serious technical issues (getting the thermal printer to work, dealing with and communicating with long strings of text with very little documentation). It was nevertheless a very good exercise, that allowed me to dig deep into specific coding issues, and become confident using them. It was probably the best way to understand Vectors, and it also familiarised me with different types of Serial Communication. The design is close to what I had in mind, I wanted it to be a minimal envelop, that would center the attention on the text, both on-screen and once it is printed. 

Things to improve regarding:

  • The design: with more time, I would have worked towards building a portable device, while keeping its general esthetics and paper body. I am using the screen of the computer that is therefore largely guiding the shape and dimensions of the object.  With the printer and all the additional elements needed to get it working, I wasn’t able to engage more budget at this stage, but I would like to free it from the computer using a raspberry pi and a screen. The printer could be compressed by removing its body and 3D printing a custom, more compact one. 
  • Technical glitches: the code runs well but will sometimes crash if the rotary is turned to heavily, I would like to work towards a more solid code or structure. One thing to look at would be another way of storing and calling the texts, possibly by hosting them on a website and using API.
  • UI: I would like to add an efficient UI at the beginning of the user’s journey. It would require work on how to explain how the device works without being too directive.



The support, text and translations:

  • Queneau, Raymond. Cent Mille Milliard de Poemes, Gallimard, 1961 Paris.
  • Beverley Charles Rowe, for the translation of the book, and the online generator:
  • Another online poem generator based on the text:   
  • Background music in the video Eric Satie, Gymnopedie numero 1                                                        


​Blog posts analyzing the original book, in relation to its computational potentials:

  • Writing Techniques and Interactivity, by “InteractiveExperience”:      
  • Winder William, Robotic Poetry
  • Entry in the website Consortium on Electronic Literature, by John Vincler:
  • Also published in the Electronic Literature Directory:
  • Vasilescu Florentina, Cent mille milliards de poèmes et combien de sens ?Une étude d’analyse potentielle. (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems and How many meanings? A study on a potential analysis). The University of Montreal, Department of Comparative Literature, 2005. This research “ proposes a computational method of potential analysis for One hundred billion sonnets.”


Technical references:

  • Patricio Gonzalez Vivo, for both his projects and the Thermal Printer Addon
  • Adafruit Thermal Printer and documentation                                                                            
  • OF Book. Chapters Introduction to Vectors, and Hardware (that introduces serial communication and Firmata with Arduino.