Monday, May 14, 2012

Hackers and Unintended Gadget Music

I've been reading through the 25th Anniversary addition of the book Hackers by Steven Levy.  It chronicles the early days of the computer revolution and tells the story of some of the lesser known visionaries and revolutionaries that provided us with the technology that we take for granted.  It's quite a compelling view of an exciting time of change.

One of the stories that struck me was the first (or second depending on whose account you believe) meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975 where Steve Dompier managed to get his MITS Altair 8800 to play the Beatles song "Fool on the Hill" and  "Daisy Bell," the classic bicycle built for two song made famous by early computers and the film 2001. Actually, saying that it played the songs is a bit misleading.  You see Steve had noticed that his computer was causing interference on his nearby AM radio.  By figuring out exactly what actions in software caused particular tones on his AM radio, he was able to fashion together a scale and then play an entire piece of music.  He used a set of toggle switches on the front panel of the computer to enter in the the binary code required to play the music.  No keyboards here.  No MIDI.  No computer sound cards.  This was hardcore.

What I love about this story is that its all based on the unintended consequences of the system.  Nobody designed the Altair to make music, but Steve noticed some quirky behavior and followed it.  The result, in 1975, was a group of hobbyists were inspired, as were the people who saw Steve's program published later on.  They were inspired to go play with this new technology themselves.  They were inspired to explore and find out where it would lead.  These were the people who shaped the personal computer industry later - Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc.

The whole idea of finding music in technology where it wasn't intended was refreshed in my mind by the much more modern video below, which has 8 rocking floppy disk drives playing "What is Love." The rhythm of data - pretty awesome and pretty dancable I think.

FYA, Below is a reconstruction of the original Altair playing Daisy

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