BBC finds oldest digital music recording

June 19, 2008 // 8:11 a.m.

Tags: #baby #bbc #birth-of-computing #ferranti #ferranti-mark-1 #manchester #manchester-baby #mark-1 #music #turing

If you'd like to see the precursor to WinAmp, check out what the BBC has found mouldering away in its archive: the oldest known recording of computer generated music.

According to an article which hit the BBC site on Tuesday archivists working for the Beeb have uncovered recordings made in 1951 featuring a Ferranti Mark 1 – the commercialised successor to the 'Manchester Baby' – playing a range of medleys. Well, two and a bit: Baa Baa Black Sheep, God Save the King, and part of In The Mood.

Recorded by the BBC during an autumn visit to Manchester University in 1951, the recovered audio represents the earliest surviving recording of computer-generated music. The program allowing the Ferranti to perform its musical magic was written by Christopher Strachey, then a maths master at Harrow. Some argument remains over whether that was the intention of his program – Chris Burton of the Computer Conservation Society is adamant that the program was actually a draughts simulator which played God Save the King when a game was finished – but his achievement places him in the history books as the second person in the world to make a computer sing; beaten to the punch a few weeks earlier by the Australian CSIRO computer's rendition of Colonel Bogey, of which sadly no recordings survive.

The recording, available on the BBC website, is an important reminder of just how far we've come in a remarkably short time. Less than sixty years ago computers like the Ferranti Mark 1 had just 128 bytes – yes, that's bytes with no prefix – of memory, and required entire rooms to house their complicated innards. Now, we carry portable 'phones that have unimaginably more power than was ever thought possible – not to mention being capable of somewhat better sound reproduction.

Although I doubt we have anyone reading who was personally acquainted with the Manchester Baby, I know some of you have been involved in computing for a good long while. What's your earliest memory of the hobby you've grown to love? Share your experiences over in the forums.
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