First digital music made in Manchester

Jun 18, 2008

Computer scientists and engineers at The University of Manchester took part in the first ever recording of digital music in the early 1950s, it has been revealed.

Evidence of the achievement has come to light in the form of an astonishing audio recording that has emerged from the archives of the Computer Conservation Society.

The Ferranti Mark 1 computer – the immediate successor to the famous ‘Baby’ computer – is heard playing God Save The King, an aborted attempt at Baa Baa Black Sheep and finally a truncated rendition of In The Mood.

The recording was done during a visit to The University of Manchester by the BBC’s Outside Broadcasting team in the autumn of 1951.

The Ferranti Mark 1 played a series of tunes for the programme Children’s Hour – and after the recording had been completed, one of the engineers, Frank Cooper, asked if it would be possible to get his own copy of the recording.

He was told this could not be done due to copyright issues – but the BBC team agreed to make a separate, one-off recording on a single sided acetate disc of the Mark 1 playing three songs, which was then given to Mr Cooper.

The recording was later passed to the Computer Conservation Society and then taken to the National Sound Archive, where it was transferred to audio cassette.

The recording has been unearthed during the preparations for Digital 60 Day on Friday 20 June 2008 – the 60th anniversary of the birth of the ‘Baby’ or Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), which is the forerunner of all modern computers.

The Computer Conservation Society says it’s not aware of any earlier recordings of computer-generated music.

‘The Baby’ successfully executed its first program in Manchester on 21 June 1948. That program was written by Tom Kilburn who designed and built the machine at The University of Manchester with the late Freddie Williams.

Chris Burton, a leading member of the Computer Conservation Society and the engineer who led the team who built a replica of The Baby in 1998, said: “The Mark 1 had an instruction in its order code called ‘Hoot’. If a programmer used that in a program then the loudspeaker emitted a brief tone. It was used for warning about end of program. All Ferranti computers had the feature in one way or another.

“In 1948 the mathematician Alan Turing came to the University of Manchester and started using and working on the Mark 1. In 1951, Turing invited a friend of his called Christopher Strachey to write a draughts program for the machine. When it terminated Strachey had programmed it to use the ‘Hoot’ instruction in such a way that the machine played the tune God Save the King.

“Strachey was then persuaded to create a music program that could load and play any tune. Later, it became traditional for all Ferranti maintenance engineers to write a music program for each new type of machine.”

In an introduction to the 1951 recording, the late Frank Cooper says: “At that time Alan Turing was in charge of the programmers and had in facts written a programmers manual. He sent a copy of this to a friend of his [Christopher Strachey] who was alleged to be a maths master at one of the better known public schools.

“The outcome of this was that [Stratchey] was invited to write a program and bring it up to Manchester and try it out on this brand new computer. In due course he arrived with sheets of paper and installed himself a tape punch and laboriously transcribed his program onto punch paper tape, which was the done thing in those days.

“He successfully accomplished this task and put the tape into the computer. It obviously worked, the program ran and to the astonishment of everyone in the room, the computer started to play the national anthem in a very raucous manner. We were all agog to know how this had been done.”

“Eventually word got around that this marvellous computer – or the electronic brain as it tended to be called by the press in those days – and everyone wanted to hear this.

“One of the groups that came along at the time was a recording crew from BBC Children’s Hour. In those days the machine wasn’t all that reliable but we managed to get it working for the necessary four or five minutes for the BBC to make a recording of various tunes that had been written for the computer and they were all very happy.”

Source: The University of Manchester

Explore further: Technology to help people with disabilities to learn and communicate

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Impoverished North Korea falls back on cyber weapons

Dec 19, 2014

As one of the world's most impoverished powers, North Korea would struggle to match America's military or economic might, but appears to have settled on a relatively cheap method to torment its foe.

North Korea linked to Sony hacking (Update)

Dec 17, 2014

Federal investigators have now connected the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. to North Korea, a U.S. official said Wednesday, though it remained unclear how the federal government would respond ...

First steps for Hector the robot stick insect

Dec 16, 2014

A research team at Bielefeld University has succeeded in teaching the only robot of its kind in the world how to walk. Its first steps have been recorded in a video. The robot is called Hector, and its construction ...

Recommended for you

BPG image format judged awesome versus JPEG

Dec 17, 2014

If these three letters could talk, BPG, they would say something like "Farewell, JPEG." Better Portable Graphics (BPG) is a new image format based on HEVC and supported by browsers with a small Javascript ...

Atari's 'E.T.' game joins Smithsonian collection

Dec 15, 2014

One of the "E.T." Atari game cartridges unearthed this year from a heap of garbage buried deep in the New Mexico desert has been added to the video game history collection at the Smithsonian.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.