Yesterday, we heard the first pop song written by a computer. Today, we've got another milestone in our long evolution toward cyborgdom and machine rule: the earliest recording of computer-generated music period.
Some handbooks say the first computer-made notes came from Bell Labs in 1957, some say there was a musical rig in Sydney in 1950, but The British Library, the largest library in the world, contests that Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory was producing computer music as early as the autumn of 1948.
And now, a team of audio archivists from New Zealand have restored the earliest recordings of Turing's compu-chorister for us to hear.
Using the computer's internal clock, Turing had programmed the machine to emit a clicking noise. Repeating the command, he found, created notes and he could modulate the notes by rearranging the pattern of clicks. He used this feature as a notification system. There was a specific note, for instance, for "job finished" or "digits overflowing in memory" or "error when transferring data from the magnetic drum." He'd never bothered to compose music on the thing.
But Christopher Strachey, a young schoolteacher and pianist, studied the Programmers' Handbook for Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II, the world's first computer programming manual, and was compelled by Turing's instructions on the machine's ability to express musical notes. He convinced Turing to let him try playing a song with the Mark II. The first score he attempted, "God Save The King," was then the longest computer program ever attempted. Upon hearing the performance, Turing responded only "Good show." Though Strachey was offered a job at the lab just a few weeks later.
In 1951, a BBC broadcast unit in Manchester showed up with a portable acetate disc cutter to capture three songs produced by the Mark II, which nearly filled the entire first floor of Turing's lab. Only a 12" single-sided acetate disc survived as evidence of the performance, though it was cut poorly and suffered from speed constancy issues and a terrible wobble.
The archivist team from New Zealand was able to correct the recording errors and reproduce the original sound of the computer. Marvel at some digital antiquities as the Mark II bleats out "God Save The King," "Baa Baa Black Sheep," and Glenn Miller's "In The Mood" streaming above.