Is 'the dog ate my homework' not cutting it? If you are in need of a random excuse, Henry Hoke's invention could be the solution. Or not.

“This thing runs on refined bulldust.”  

Mark Thomson is bringing the random excuse generator to life. He checks a few circuits, flicks some switches and tells me to start pedalling.  

As I do, a yellow ball in the particle charger starts bouncing up a thin glass column. “You’ve got to try and keep it up around 35,” Thomson instructs, pointing to the levels marked on the side of the glass. “Not too far. Maybe just do it for five seconds continuously.”  

A white arrow on a small gauge labelled as the bulldust meter points to 45. “That’s pretty good.” 

Cybernetic Imagination Resident Mark Thomson with the random excuse generator. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Over the whirring of the pedals, Thomson explains what’s happening. “The bulldust is going through a series of gasification chambers where it’s cooled, heated and expanded, and its unique properties start to condense excuses.” 

The machine – an intriguing concoction of gauges, dials, switches and levers – is the creation of Australian inventor Henry Hoke, Thomson says.  

According to Thomson’s book, The Lost Tools of Henry Hoke, Hoke was born in 1910 in the outback town of Hoke’s Bluff. His father Silas was a pharmacist who invented a number of lucrative patent medicines. His mother Beryl was a stalwart of the Ladies Blacksmithing League – described as a cross between the Country Women’s Association and the Hells Angels – and a prize-winning marmalade maker.  

Hoke himself began working as a mechanic before joining the Merchant Marine. At times, he may have also worked as a shearer, well-digging contractor, United States Army weapons designer and a professional musical saw player. Hoke was “truly a Renaissance man of the Industrial Age”, Thomson writes, and his masterpiece was the random excuse generator, the “Holy Grail of many an inventor”.  

“People all over the world were trying to build a random excuse generator that worked because the commercial possibilities are nearly endless,” Thomson says. 

The random excuse generator, which Mark Thomson describes as the “Holy Grail of many an inventor”. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Back to the machine.   

Thomson continues to give me instructions: select the excuse category, switch on the diversion injector, pull the lever on the verbal randomiser, activate the blame shifter (a two-handed operation for emergency use only) and monitor the credibility gap tolerance.  

“Now we light up the rational rectifier because excuses sometimes go wandering into absurdity, so you can press that button there,” he guides. Beams of light start dancing in a glass dome in the centre of the motherboard. “That’s the excuses burning off. Our excuses are almost cooked, as they say in the trade.” 

An LED bar at the top of the machine starts scrolling: My mobile battery was flat. I couldn’t find my car keys. Help I’m trapped in here doing excuses let me out. 

Somewhere between Thomson’s recounting of the genius of Henry Hoke and lettered ping pong balls tossing about in the alphabet chute I start thinking: I don’t believe a word he’s saying. 

And despite his very convincing narrative, which he delivers entirely with a straight face, Thomson doesn’t expect me to. 

“It looks like technology that could, or should, have existed.”

Mark Thomson

Hoke’s Random Excuse Generator, on display at the ANU School of Cybernetics, is an interactive installation exploring the relationship between technology and storytelling.

“All technology exists not just in a technological realm, but in a social and cultural realm as well, and technology acquires stories. What we’re doing here is depositing a sort of parallel imagination of other technology that doesn’t exist,” Thomson says.  

So the generator won’t really generate random excuses and Henry Hoke didn’t invent it. He never existed. The character, his backstory, his parents – they’re all fake.

“It’s a classic Australian leg-pulling story: the heroic inventor struggling ever optimistically to create some novel piece of new technology. And it has a physicality to it that means people will come up and want to play with it,” Thomson says of the machine. 

Thomson, a cross-disciplinary artist and designer, is undertaking a 12-month residency at the school and running a workshop on the relationship between technology, history and storytelling. He hopes Hoke’s Random Excuse Generator makes people reassess how they think about technology. 

“This is an absurdly over-the-top imagination of what an invention like this could be and it looks like technology that could, or should, have existed,” he says.  

“But it’s a way of bringing a sceptical view of technology and I see that as the chief benefit. It prompts lots of interesting discussions about the nature of technology and its outcomes. For example, is it a good thing to have technology whose intention seems to be to deceive? Or to prompt more questions than it answers?” 

Masters students Andrew Delaney (left) and Christine Balasa with Hoke’s Random Excuse Generator. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Thomson started building the machine 15 years ago and it’s been through many iterations since. He’s always finding or being given a gadget or spare part that winds up on the installation. But a concept that seemed so absurd back then has taken on an unexpected relevance now.  

“It’s starting to look like artificial intelligence technology – maybe ChatGPT’s strange Australian relative,” Thomson observes. “The language sounds genuine and if you were to make a random excuse generator these are the type of things you might consider.” 

But Thomson isn’t done yet. His next plan is to connect the installation to the internet and make it more interactive. 

Henry Hoke would be proud.

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