Listen to the First Computer-Made Tune on Alan Turing’s Synthesizer

From code-breaker to musical innovator

Alan Turing
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Alan Turing is best-known as one of the world’s first computer scientists and the brains behind the effort to crack the German’s Enigma code during World War II, but his career didn’t end with the war. Not only did he continue to make strides in designing early computers, but he was also one of the first people to see their potential as musical instruments. Now, a group of researchers have uncovered and restored one of the earliest recordings made on Turing's early synthesizer.

While working at the Computing Machine Laboratory in Manchester, England during the late 1940s, Turing figured out that he could make his enormous early computer produce identifiable musical notes by programming the CPU to play a clicking at certain intervals as it spun, Steve Dent reports for Engadget.

These sounds were a far cry from anything 1970s synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog would create decades later, much less anything in modern electronic music. In fact, it wasn’t even really electronic music, as the notes were created by moving parts inside the computer. But the fact that Turing figured out that he could program the computer to create these tones was remarkable, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports

At the time, Turing wasn’t interested in having his machines make music. But when a budding programmer and musician named Christopher Strachey got his hands on the manual for Turing’s Manchester Mark II computer, he used this trait to program the machine to play “God Save the Queen,” Dent reports. At the time, it was the longest computer program ever written. A few years later, Turing put on a demonstration for the BBC, which recorded the computer playing a total of three songs on a 12-inch  single-sided acetate record.

Recently, a pair of researchers from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury got their hands on the original recording. While it was still in one piece, the audio itself became badly distorted over time, rendering the historic moment nearly impossible to hear, George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo.

“The frequencies in the recording were not accurate. The recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded,” UC Professor Jack Copeland and composer Jason Long tell the AFP.

To restore the record, Copeland and Long transferred the record’s recording into a modern-day computer and painstakingly got rid of extra noise from the distorted recording and adjusted the playback speed. The result is a recording that still sounds like an old recording made during the 1950s, but where one can easily pick out the demonstrators’ voices and the computer’s production of “God Save the Queen,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and a piece by Glenn Miller called “In the Mood,” the AFP reports.

“It was a beautiful moment when we first heard the true sound of Turing’s computer,” Copeland and Long wrote for the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog.

Turing committed suicide a few years later at the age of 41 after he was persecuted by the government for being gay and was forced to be chemically castrated. As a result, he was never able to see the great heights that the descendants of those first computers could make in creating music and art of all sorts.

You can listen to the restored recording in full here.

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