Irrlicht Project, who runs the chip/demo/8bit blog IP’s Ancient Wonderland, has done some impressive research to find out that computer music is older than we thought. Just a few months before Australians and Englishmen did their pioneering beeps, a group of Americans played music with the UNIVAC. Lieutenant Herb Finney at Army Air played hits like The Eyes of Texas and The Air Force Song.
Later on a Betty Holberton, who was involved in programming the ENIAC, made some other tunes which Irrlicht writes about in his post. Those songs were played in public in June 1951, which is the oldest public performance of computer music that we know of at the moment. Depending on what you mean by computer music. The ENIAC did not actually synthesize digital sounds like the Australians and Englismen did that same summer (err, winter). The ENIAC-music was essentially telling a radio receiver to play notes and music. This technique was made famous by Steve Dompier on the Altair 8800 in 1975, but had been done many times before. In fact, in 1968 the Rand Corporation writes (p.16):
All in all, this was a neat and clever idea, and still is: nearly every college computing center rediscovers it independently.
Another h/t to herr Irrlicht for finding this quote, which gives us reason to ask: How much digital music experiments have been lost in time? I think it’s safe to say that it’s quite a lot, for several reasons. Many engineers were doing this for fun, perhaps even without permission after working hours. And music wasn’t exactly part of the repertoire of “proper computing” so it was not well documented either.
If you are surprised that a woman did this – don’t be. The first programmer was a woman, and many other computing pioneers were too. Also – back when “computer” was a work position and not a machine, many computers were females.
Are you surprised that militaries did this? Don’t be. Plenty of music- and media technologies originate from military R&D. The German media theorist Kittler went as far saying that “the entertainment industry is, in all senses of the term, misuse of military equipment”.
Anyway. I’ve changed the timeline accordingly and look forward to doing it again!
Btw, if you happen to be pals with Herb Finney you might want to get in touch with Allan Reiter for his UNIVAC documentation project (where the image at the top is taken from).
Btw, Also check out the Dutch computer music that was released on 7″ in 1962 that Irrlicht also found recently.