(not so) Brief history of sound in computers, pt 1.

This is the first article covering the history of computers generating sound and performing music. This part goes back to the very early years of first computing machines – the 50’s and the 60’s.  I hope you find it as fascinating as I did when I was researching it 😉


The pioneer years.
The first ever machine that was programmed to play music was the CSIRAC, first Australian computer and one of the first stored program computers in the world. Around 1951, the machine played some tunes in public, but nothing was actually recorded.

The first recorded computer sound comes from the University of Manchester, and the computers known as “The Baby” and its successor – Ferranti Mk. 1. You can listen to that fascinating piece of history here :):

The program was written by Christopher Strachey, British computer scientist and a pioneer in the field of programming language design. He co-designed the CPL language, which later influenced BCPL (Basic CPL) and, finally, the C language.

Another important point in the history of computer generated sounds is the development of MUSIC. In 1957, Max Mathews of Bell Labs created first widely used sound programming language – MUSIC I. It is still widely used today in the form of its descendant – the open source CSound software.

Since music theory is basically a pure mathematics and physics, the introduction of computing machines made it possible for scientists to delve into the algorithmic music composition. In 1956, two chemists with an access to the electronic computer (that apparently were classically trained composers as well) – Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Issacson created the Illiac Suite for String Quartet. This is generally known as the first piece of music composed by the computer, that is, an output of the computer program ran on the Illinois Automatic Computer – ILLIAC 1. You can listen to this awesome piece here:

Of course, there were some other ways to play music using the electronic computers of that time. In 1959 IBM introduced its 1401 line of machines. One of the parts of the system was the IBM 1403 line printer, which, with a bit of clever coding, could actually play music ;). One fine example here:

You could also put an AM radio receiver near the magnetic core memory of the electronic computer and catch some tunes from it ;). It was possible because of the radio frequency interference coming from the memory when a state (a bit in the memory) was changed. (see the video from Computer History Museum below)

In the early 60’s, hacker(the word’s original definition) culture started to emerge at the MIT. DEC PDP-1 was available there at that time. This community spawned many of the ground-breaking achievements in computing history using the PDP-1: one of the first computer games, first word processor, first interactive software debugger to name a few. Not surprisingly, the PDP-1, with a custom hardware “sound board”, played some multi part music as well! Peter Samson, one of the original hackers, designed the hardware board(flip-flops with RC filters on output) which was controlled by the output code of his Harmony Compiler. This was a sophisticated text processor optimized for creating baroque music. More detailed explanation (with audio files) is here, and you can hear PDP-1 playing music right away:

A terrific demonstration of the only operational PDP-1 that plays some musice at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California by Lyle Bickley.

Nothing really changed much during the 1960’s, however, some significant developments need at least a honorable mention 🙂

As I said before, the hackers from MIT using a PDP-1 created one of the first computer games ever. The game was called  “Spacewar!” and it didn’t produce any sound whatsoever. First version appeared in 1962. It was really, really popular at the time, was ported to other systems, and, most importantly, inspired other hackers to create their own games. Here you can see the venerable PDP-1 running “Spacewar!”:

“Spacewar!” is one of the most important video games – it is believed to have started the video game craze. Video game industry began in early 70’s (with the advent of the first arcade machines) and had been one of the major driving forces for innovation it the field of sound generation and reproduction by computers ever since.

Stay tuned for the next part of the article that will tell the story of sound in computers during the 70’s and 80’s – video game industry, home computer revolution, analog and digital synthesizers, and many more important stuff in the field of sound reproduction and generation by digital computing machines 🙂

Cheers!

Cristos.

 

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