Georgetown–IBM experiment

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The Georgetown–IBM experiment was an influential demonstration of machine translation, which was performed during January 7, 1954. Developed jointly by the Georgetown University and IBM, the experiment involved completely automatic translation of more than sixty Russian sentences into English.[1][2]


Conceived and performed primarily in order to attract governmental and public interest and funding by showing the possibilities of machine translation, it was by no means a fully featured system: It had only six grammar rules and 250 lexical items in its vocabulary (of stems and endings).[3] This complete dictionary was never fully shown (only the extended one from Garvin's article). Apart from general topics, the system was specialised in the domain of organic chemistry. The translation was carried out using an IBM 701 mainframe computer (launched in April 1953). Sentences had to be punched onto cards.

The Georgetown-IBM experiment is the best-known result of the MIT conference in June 1952 to which all active researchers in the machine translation field were invited. At the conference, Duncan Harkin from US Department of Defense suggested that his department would finance a new machine translation project.[4] Jerome Weisner supported the idea and offered finance from the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT. Leon Dostert had been invited to the project for his previous experience with the automatic correction of translations (back then 'mechanical translation'); his interpretation system had a strong impact on the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. The linguistics part of the demonstration was carried out for the most part by linguist Paul Garvin who had also good knowledge of Russian.

Over 60 Romanized Russian statements from a wide range of political, legal, mathematical, and scientific topics were entered into the machine by a computer operator who knew no Russian, and the resulting English translations appeared on a printer.

The sentences to be translated were carefully selected. Many operations for the demonstration were fitted to specific words and sentences. In addition, there was no relational or sentence analysis which could recognize the sentence structure. The approach was mostly 'lexicographical' based on a dictionary where a specific word had a connection with specific rules and steps.[5]

Six rules[edit]

  • Operation 0 – An exact equivalent for an translated item exists. Any further steps needed.[6]
  • Operation 1 – Rearrangement of the position of the words. AB > BA
  • Operation 2 – The several choices problem. The result is based on the consecutive words (maximum of three).
  • Operation 3 – Also several problems. But the result depends on the previous words (maximum of three).
  • Operation 4 – Omissions of the lexical (morphological) item. The source item would be redundant.
  • Operation 5 – Insertion of the lexical (morphological) item. The item is not present in the output language.

Translation Examples[edit]

Russian (Romanized) English translation
Mi pyeryedayem mislyi posryedstvom ryechyi. We transmit thoughts by means of speech.
Vyelyichyina ugla opryedyelyayetsya otnoshyenyiyem dlyini dugi k radyiusu. Magnitude of angle is determined by the relation of length of arc to radius.
Myezhdunarodnoye ponyimanyiye yavlyayetsya vazhnim faktorom v ryeshyenyiyi polyityichyeskix voprosov. International understanding constitutes an important factor in decision of political questions.


Well publicized by journalists and perceived as a success, the experiment did encourage governments to invest in computational linguistics. The authors claimed that within three or five years, machine translation could well be a solved problem. However, the real progress was much slower, and after the ALPAC report in 1966, which found that the ten years of long research had failed to fulfill the expectations, funding was reduced dramatically.

The demonstration was given widespread coverage in the foreign press, but only a small fraction of journalists drew attention to previous machine translation attempts.[7]


  1. ^ Nye, Mary Jo (2016). "Speaking in Tongues: Science's centuries-long hunt for a common language". Distillations. 2 (1): 40–43. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  2. ^ Gordin, Michael D. (2015). Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226000299.
  3. ^ John Hutchins. "The first public demonstration of machine translation: the Georgetown-IBM system, 7th January 1954". S2CID 132677. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Reynolds, A. Craig (1954). "The conference on mechanical translation". Mechanical Translation. 1 (3): 47–55.
  5. ^ Reifler, Erwin (February 2–5, 1960). "The solution of MT linguistic problems through lexicography". Proceedings of the National Symposium on Machine Translation.
  6. ^ Dostert, Leon E. (1955). "The Georgetown–I.B.M. experiment, 124–135". Locke and Booth.
  7. ^ Hutchins, John (1997). "From first conception to first demonstration: the nascent years of machine translation, 1947-1954. A chronology". Machine Translation 12, 195-252. 12 (3): 195–252. doi:10.1023/A:1007969630568. S2CID 197591.

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