By autumn of 1956 I had gotten my PRINT I system for the IBM 705
installed satisfactorily at a number of sites. There were many
other things I wanted to do, and IBM had their own list of what
they wanted me to do. But there was latitude.
Christmas was coming up, and IBM had this shiny 705 in the
ground-floor showcase at 590 Madison Avenue. Surely a little Christmas
music was in order.
Note that this was not my original idea; music had been played on
computers before. Even at IBM, on the 701, three years before
my venture, Joe Teagarden had employed roughly the same technique
to get different tones.
Read his story -- he thinks he may have been first.
But I was a software man -- a compiler man. I should be able to
marry the two. So I wrote a modest translator from a solfeggio
notation, input on punch cards. The variables were 1) the key,
2) the tempo, in quarter notes per minute, 3) the number of such
quarter notes to the bar (i.e., the time), 4) the note itself,
5) sharping or flatting, 6) the duration of the note in 16th
notes (optionally 32nd), and 7) octave change up or down.
The notation was like "mi-4,mi-4,mi-4,mif-4 mi-4,sol-4,fa-4,la-4,
re-4,do-4,ti-2,do-2,re-4,sol-4,mi-12 ..." Which gave one
"Oh Little Town of Bethlehem ..." (the octave-changing technique is
not shown here -- I've forgotten it).
The tone was played, as usual, by tapping off some operation code
or other hardware-unique point, which got triggered at the end of a
program loop of varying length. It got "ooh - aah" responses like
a fireworks show.
To show the real virtuosity of the notation, I made a deck of cards
for "Entry of the Gladiators", that old circus tune. I figured
that was often played on a calliope (another mechanical music
device), which didn't have the best timbre either. So it would be
a good match.
I couldn't resist varying the tempo. Finally set it to 1000
quarter notes a minute, a rate at which a calliope would have
broken down, probably. Wow!
I sent a tape recording of that to Dr. Henry Tropp at the Smithsonian
Institution, when he was just getting going in the computer history
field. He eventually returned it, and it's somewhere among my
office detritus. I don't know if I can find an old-fashioned tape
player to run it.
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