June 18, 2008

Oldest Known Computer Generated Music Found

During the 60th Anniversary celebration of "Baby", the forerunner of all modern computers, historians have released what they consider to be the oldest recordings of computer generated music.

The songs, including Baa Baa Black Sheep, God Save the King and a truncated version of In the Mood, were played on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer in the Autumn of 1951 during a visit to the University of Manchester.

"I think it's historically significant," said Paul Doornbusch, a computer music composer and historian at the New Zealand School of Music.

"As far as I know it's the earliest recording of a computer playing music in the world, probably by quite a wide margin," he added.

That margin is at least 6 years, says Doornbusch, as the previous oldest known recordings were made on an IBM mainframe computer at Bell Labs in the US 1957.

"That's where the whole computer music thing started but they were not the first to have a computer play music," said Mr Doornbusch.

In fact, the first machine to play music was Australia's first digital computer, CSIRAC, which performed a rendition of Colonel Bogey before audiences, but no recordings of the CSIRAC's music have ever been found.

"It played music months or weeks before [the Manchester] recording," said Mr Doornbusch.

The Manchester machine's performance was captured by BBC broadcasters, who had gone to the University to record an edition of Children's hour.

"Word must have got around that this electronic brain could play music," explained Chris Burton of the Computer Conversation Society (CCS).

The music program was written by a friend of computing legend Alan Turing, named Christopher Strachey, a math master at Harrow.

"My understanding is that Chris Strachey got on and wrote a program for playing draughts and when the program terminated it played God Save the King," said Mr Burton.

Following the recording, a university engineer called Frank Cooper asked if he could have a copy. Unable to give him the original, the BBC team cut him another version.

"At the time of the recording outside broadcasts were recorded on to acetate disks," explained Mr Burton. "You can hear the presenter tell the recording engineer in the van 'lift Jim' and that meant lift the cutter off to stop recording."

The disc was eventually passed to the CCS, who, along with the University of Manchester, has released the recording to mark the 60th anniversary of the Ferranti machine's forerunner.

After "Baby", or Small Scale Experimental Machine, was birthed in the late 1940s, Manchester became a popular place for innovation.

Baby was the forerunner of the Ferranti Mark 1 and was the first computer to contain a memory device that could store a program.

"Baby was the first universal computer," explained Mr Burton.

"It would perform any task - within its capacity - depending on what program was put in."

Scientists were limited to program 1024 bits, as opposed to the billions in today's computers.

Before Baby was built, computers such as ENIAC and Colossus had to be rewired to perform different tasks, said Mr Burton.

"You couldn't easily change what they did."

Baby successfully ran its first program - to determine the highest factor of a number - on 21 June 1948.


On the Net:

See The Video

University of Manchester

Baby's 60th Anniversary

Computer Conservation Society

New Zealand School of Music