CSIRAC

CSIRAC (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer) was the first computer built in Australia and the fourth stored-program computer in the world. It ran its first test program late in 1949, and it played music not too long after, making it the first computer in the world to play music. CSIRACs story, and that of the music is fascinating and entertaining. CSIRAC was a serial computer, meaning that the bits of a computational word were pased around serially, not in parallel. This, and another other decisions about its design were primarily for simplicity as CSIRAC was initially considered to be a prototype of a more comprehensive machine. CSIRAC had a speaker which was used as a diagnostic aid to follow a program (it had no display other than a raw view of bits in the memory), because raw pulses from the serial buss could be sent to the speaker. A loop of these was typically called a blurt and was often used to signify the end of a program. In 1950 or 1951 CSIRAC was used to play music, the first known use of a digital computer for that purpose. Geoff Hill was the programmer to first achieve this, and he came from a musical family and had perfect pitch - it would have been natural for him to ponder if he could coax a steady tone from CSIRAC's speaker to make music. This music was never recorded (although it almost happened), but it has been accurately reconstructed as described in the book The Music of CSIRAC mentioned below, and it can be heard via the links at the bottom of this page. There is information about CSIRAC on several sites: Wikipedia, The University of Melbourne (music pages are here), CSIRO, National Treasures, and Melbourne Museum (which has CSIRAC on display).

It is important to note that the early attempts at making computers play music did not use a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), or pre-calculated synthesis waveforms which are standard today. The developments initiated by Max Mathews and John Pierce have the distinction of being the first musical use of a DAC, as well as going beyond what was previously the playback of standard or popular melodies, to investigating the very rich musical possibilities offered by the computer. Thus it is Mathews and Pierce, whose work led to the great musical consequences and advances of computer music, who are the rightful fathers of the genre. This in no way diminishes the significance and achievement of programming CSIRAC to play music from 1951.

You can view the video of Trevor Pearcey discussing the CSIRAC music here:

The YouTube page is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slr75sLhOCs

The Music of CSIRAC cover image

The book The Music of CSIRAC: Australia's First Computer Music can sometimes be purchased through Amazon, or directly from this page if you send me an email.

A paper published in 2004 in the Computer Music Journal describing the project and results is available as a PDF document here.

The book was reviewed in MIT Press' Computer Music Journal, Fall 2006, Vol. 30, No. 3, Pages 85-87:

"Readers of Computer Music Journal will likely be aware of Paul Doornbusch's work on early computer music in Australia. For many, it was a revelation to realize that music was being produced "down under" as early as 1951, several years before Max Mathews and his colleagues were producing digital sounds at Bell Labs in New Jersey.

Mr. Doornbusch's dedication to this project and the thoroughness with which he pursued the explication of this historic computer music technology, along with his determination to reproduce the sounds of the CSIRAC, are admirable. The history of computer music is one to be constructed from a great variety of sources, and this hitherto little known Australian contribution from the very early days represents a valuable addition to our knowledge of the field.

The Music of CSIRAC presents good solid work on an aspect of computer music history that deserves to be better known. Paul Doornbusch is to be lauded for his dedication to this project. His book is an important, crucial addition to the body of references documenting our field."

 

MP3s of all of the music played by CSIRAC, and reconstructed, can be heard below:

Music from CSIRAC's time in Sydney.
1 Scale
2 Colonel Bogey
3 Bonnie Banks
4 Girl with Flaxen Hair
5 Auld Lang Syne
6 Chopin March
7 Thanks for the Memories
8 Saul
9 Saul variation with blurts

Music from CSIRAC's time in Melbourne.
10 So Early in the Morning
11 Scale 1
12 Scale 2
13 In Cellar Cool
14 Lucy Long
15 Lucy Long alternate variation 3
16 In Cellar Cool with CSIRAC environmental noises

This project was generously supported by The Australia Council for the Arts, The University of Melbourne Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, Museum Victoria and the Pearcey Foundation.