Hear the Christmas Carols Made by Alan Turing’s Computer: Cutting-Edge Versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Good King Wenceslas” (1951)

Alan Tur­ing (right) stands next to the Fer­ran­ti Mark I. Pho­to cour­tesy of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­ches­ter

This Christ­mas, as our com­put­ers fast learn to com­pose music by them­selves, we might gain some per­spec­tive by cast­ing our minds back to 66 Christ­mases ago, a time when a com­put­er’s ren­di­tion of any­thing resem­bling music at all had thou­sands and thou­sands lis­ten­ing in won­der. In Decem­ber of 1951, the BBC’s hol­i­day broad­cast, in most respects a nat­u­ral­ly tra­di­tion­al affair, includ­ed the sound of the future: a cou­ple of much-loved Christ­mas car­ols per­formed not by a choir, nor by human beings of any kind, but by an elec­tron­ic machine the likes of which almost nobody had even laid eyes upon.

“Among its Christ­mas fare the BBC broad­cast two melodies that, although instant­ly rec­og­niz­able, sound­ed like noth­ing else on earth,” write Jack Copeland and Jason Long at the British Library’s Sound and Vision Blog. “They were Jin­gle Bells and Good King Wences­las, played by the mam­moth Fer­ran­ti Mark I com­put­er that stood in Alan Tur­ing’s Com­put­ing Machine Lab­o­ra­to­ry” at the Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­ches­ter. Tur­ing, whom we now rec­og­nize for a vari­ety of achieve­ments in com­put­ing, cryp­tog­ra­phy, and relat­ed fields (includ­ing crack­ing the Ger­man “Enig­ma code” dur­ing the Sec­ond World War), had joined the uni­ver­si­ty in 1948.

That same year, with his for­mer under­grad­u­ate col­league D. G. Cham­per­nowne, Tur­ing began writ­ing a pure­ly the­o­ret­i­cal com­put­er chess pro­gram. No com­put­er exist­ed on which he could pos­si­bly try run­ning it for the next few years until the Fer­ran­ti Mark 1 came along, and even that mam­moth proved too slow. But it could, using a func­tion designed to give audi­to­ry feed­back to its oper­a­tors, play music — of a kind, any­way. The com­put­er com­pa­ny’s “mar­ket­ing supre­mo,” accord­ing to Copeland and Long, called its brief Christ­mas con­cert “the most expen­sive and most elab­o­rate method of play­ing a tune that has ever been devised.”

Since no record­ing of the broad­cast sur­vives, what you hear here is a painstak­ing recon­struc­tion made from tapes of the com­put­er’s even ear­li­er ren­di­tions of “God Save the King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and “In the Mood.” By man­u­al­ly chop­ping up the audio, write Copeland and Long, “we cre­at­ed a palette of notes of var­i­ous pitch­es and dura­tions. These could then be rearranged to form new melodies. It was musi­cal Lego.” But do “beware of occa­sion­al dud notes. Because the com­put­er chugged along at a sedate 4 kilo­hertz or so, hit­ting the right fre­quen­cy was not always pos­si­ble.” Even so, some­where in there I hear the his­tor­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal seeds of the much more elab­o­rate elec­tron­ic Christ­mas to come, from Mannheim Steam­roller to the Jin­gle Cats and well beyond.

via The British Library

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the First Record­ing of Com­put­er Music: Researchers Restore Three Melodies Pro­grammed on Alan Turing’s Com­put­er (1951)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music, 1800–2015: Free Web Project Cat­a­logues the Theremin, Fairlight & Oth­er Instru­ments That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Music

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

The Enig­ma Machine: How Alan Tur­ing Helped Break the Unbreak­able Nazi Code

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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