First Digital Music Recording Found

After more than fifty years of lying dormant in a storage room, the first known digital music recording has been rediscovered. The crackly, analogue recording surfaced during a big clean up of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s vaults. Apparently it was made in 1951 and has the unique distinction of being the earliest known recording of a digital computer making music.

The rediscovery has got UK historians in a buzz. Apparently the recording was made on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer built by Ferranti, a UK electrical engineering firm, in collaboration with Manchester University. The Mark 1 had the distinction of being the first commercial computer to be produced in the world and a total of nine Mark 1s were sold from 1951 to 1957. However the Mark 1 was not the first digital computer to play music. That privilege goes to an Australian computer called the CSIRAC. The CSIRAC is thought to have performed this feat a few weeks prior to the Mark 1 recording – however, there is no recording of this noteworthy event. This means that the Mark 1 recording is the oldest known digital recording.

So how was it done? According to Geoff Tootill, one of the engineers who helped to design the computer, a loudspeaker was attached to the computer to enable operators to keep track of the progress while seeing to other activities at the time. Tootill says the speaker was “programmed to make a short click every time an instruction was completed,” and it was this noise that helped keep operators alert as to when a particular function has been performed. The recording of a children’s radio show was made by BBC and afterwards a private copy on an acetate disk was presented to one of the individuals present at the recording. It was this recording that has now been found in the Computer Conservation Society’s archives. The Mark 1 computer used short term random access memory to record “God Save the King”, Baa Baa Black Sheep and a small portion of “In The Mood” by Glenn Miller.

While the Mark 1 is now more than obsolete, we still have detailed manuals that help us to better understand the rudimentary technology that was used to create this recording. According to Tootill, programmer Chris Strachey wrote several programs to be tested on the Manchester machine. After feeding these programs in on punched tape, one of them managed to play music and history was made.