World’s Oldest Computer Music Unveiled

Fans of music made with obsolete technology are in for a treat: recordings of a Ferranti Mark 1 computer playing Baa Baa Black Sheep and In the Mood were recently released, and they are thought to be the oldest recordings of computer generated music in existence.

The Ferranti Mark 1 is a commercial version of Manchester University’s SSEM computer (aka Baby), which preceded several more well known computers like UNIVAC and EDVAC. It was one of the first computers that didn’t require a great deal of hardware rewiring to perform different tasks, making it ideal for this sort of purpose. It is not known whether the program was written to play these songs only or for more diverse composition and playback, but the author, [Chris Strachey] was known to be a friend of the legendary [Alan Turing]. The recording was released as part of the Manchester SSEM’s 60th anniversary celebration.

5 thoughts on “World’s Oldest Computer Music Unveiled

  1. I remember when I was working at MD Anderson in the Biomathematics Department back in the ’80s. The systems adminstrator for the hospital was regaling me with tales of some of the old mainframe systems, namely the IBM 1620 (jokingly dubbed “the CADET”, as in “Can’t Add, Don’t Even Try”.) Someone in the department found that when they had a radio near the central core, the radio would emit sounds. After much experimentation, they found that they could write programs that would control the RF which in turn would produce crude “tunes”. A few of the notes were off, mainly due to the fact that calculations relied on addition lookup tables in memory, rather then using purpose-built circuitry.

    To make a long story short, one day the systems administrator walked in to hear a song being played in almost perfect pitch. Curious, he asked the programmer there how he was able to correct the off tones. The programmer, proud of his accomplishment, stated that he simply altered select entries the addition tables, akin to making 2 + 2 = 7. The fact that this was a production machine in use by many departments didn’t faze him – he just wanted it to play a song perfectly!

  2. That was pretty neat. Anyone know what made the actual sounds?
    And, Ed, the article states it was “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep,” as there are a couple extra notes compared to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

  3. Those old computers look so powerful. I feel like if Godzilla attacked our city, those computers would be able to launch a lethal counterattack.

    Upon seeing pictures of old computers, I’m always brought back to my graduate days in the 1980s, with those first mac computers that came out. They were the coolest things, although they crashed every minute or so. It’s amazing how far mac and other computers have come, in terms of design, speed and power.

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