Monday, May 4, 2015

CSIRAC Was Not The First: Rewriting Computer Music History Once Again

For many years it was believed that the first experiments in computer music were done by Max Mathews at Bell Labs in 1957. In the early 2000s however, a research team concerned with the history of the CSIRAC mainframe at the University of Sidney, Australia found documents confirming a musical performance by that machine on August 7th-9th, 1951. Also, in 2008 the BBC unveiled a hidden gem from their archives: A computer music recording from autumn of 1951, done by Christopher Strachey on the Ferranti Mark I at the University of Manchester just a few weeks after the Sidney performance.

In fact, Geoff Hill's 1951 experiments have held the status of the first computer music in history ever since. However, according to my most recent research, it's time to change the record once again.

The UNIVAC I control panel, designed in part by Betty Holberton

In May 1990, the Charles Babbage Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, and
the Unisys Corporation brought together many of the pioneers and masterminds behind the UNIVAC I computer for a commemoratory Univac Conference. During the main panel, the attention suddenly turns to the little lpudspeaker that was installed on the machine for diagnostic purposes. Louis D. Wilson recalls:

When we were testing BINAC out, we were working two shifts and we worked all night long, and we had a radio going. After a while we noticed that you could recognize the pattern of what was happening at the moment by listening to the static on the radio. So I installed a detector in the console and an amplifier and a speaker so that you could deliberately listen to these things.
At this point, Frances E. "Betty" Holberton starts to wonder:
Does anybody know who actually wrote the first generator for the UNIVAC or for any computer that played music? [...] Herb Finney?
Morgan W. Huff responds:
Herb Finney, Air Force. Office of the Air Comptroller.
Hmm, interesting, but that doesn't really help us, since nobody puts a date on it. What does help us however is the conversation between Wilson and Holberton that now follows:
WILSON: Well, if you remember it, the dedication party, when we got the first machine running, John Mauchly programmed...

HOLBERTON: No, I programmed that.

WILSON: Oh, did you do that?

HOLBERTON: I certainly did. It was supposed to have been a surprise, and we did it at 2 o'clock in the morning. There were some engineers working on the BINAC and they heard it. It was actually an interpretive routine. It only had eight notes and it played "For he's a jolly good fellow," or something like that. But it was supposed to have been a surprise and it wasn't.
That "dedication party" Wilson mentions can indeed be dated. It's the dedication event of the completion of the first successful UNIVAC I installation for the US Census Bureau, which took place on June 14th, 1951.

Frances E. "Betty" Holberton

In fact computer music history might go back as far as the early days of the BINAC computer, but unfortunately we may never know. Betty Holberton is not around to tell her story anymore, she passed away in 2001; and I have yet to find more information about Louis Wilson or the mysterious Herb Finney. So, for the time being, the date of June 14th, 1951, may stand as the first ever public demonstration of computer music.

All quotes in this article are taken from the transcript of the 1990 Univac Conference at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, pages 72-73. The transcript as well as the original audio recordings can be found here.

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