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Singing Circuits

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In 1915 when Victor records included Henry Dacre’s  “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)” in the above “Songs of the Past” medley (starting at 2:44), the song was likely viewed as something of a sentimental oldie. Two decades earlier, however, the bicycle craze was in full swing and the song was a hit.   The bicycle boom of the 1890′s was enabled by the introduction of  “the safety bicycle” which had two wheels of equal size and improved gears which made the comically enlarged front wheel of the “penny-farthing” unnecessary. Dacre, a British songwriter, penned “Daisy Bell” in 1892 and it had been a hit in the theaters in London and New York before being recorded in versions by Dan Quinn and Edward Favor that flew off the shelves.

"Computer Speech," detail, (Bell Telephone Labs PB297).
“Computer Speech,”45 rpm disc cover detail, (Bell Telephone Laboratories PB-287).

While the song’s success in 1892 and 1893 certainly reflected Americans’ enthusiasm for the technical innovations of their increasingly industrial and consumer-based economy, its lyrics were also emblematic of the expansion of leisure time afforded by the new economy.

Clearly the song had long been associated with the technological advances represented by the safety bicycle, but in the 1960′s it received what was undoubtedly its most unique and technologically sophisticated performance yet.  The vocalist for this version of the song was the IBM 704 mainframe computer residing at The Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hills, New Jersey. The recording would prove to be the first instance of a computerized voice singing a song. 

 The feat was accomplished by a team that included John L. Kelly and Carol Lochbaum, who programmed the computer to sing, and engineer Max Mathews, who programmed the musical accompaniment. According to the narration on the commercial disc that  Bell later released, an elaborate procedure was used to produce the song. First, the team punched card which told the computer which of 34 sounds to play and the order in which to play them. Next, the computer’s internal programming controlled the timing and pitch information in such a way that the computer sounded “almost completely human, except for a slight electronic twang.”  Reportedly after the cards were fed to the machine, the 704 required 20 minutes to produce a single minute of music.

While this technology was obviously not yet ready for live performance, MUSIC, the program Mathews created in 1957 and revised throughout the 1960’s, would become one of the earliest and most widley used computer music programs.  In fact, the later program MAX/MSP is named in Mathew’s honor, and it has become one of the most regularly used programs by Techno DJ’s, film composers and many other electronic musicians.

 As for the recording, it was included in a display at Bell Laboratories, and when Arthur C. Clark visited in 1962 to meet his friend John Pierce, he saw it and was greatly impressed.  Later, while working with Stanley Kubrick on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he convinced the director to use it for the famous scene in which Dave Bowman deactivates the murderous, yet soft spoken,  HAL 9000 computer.  It remains one of the most poignant and memorable scenes committed to celluloid.  In 2009 the Librarian of Congress named the Bell Telephone Laboratories recording of the song to the Naional Recording Registry in recognition of its historical and cultural significance.

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