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70 Years of Glitchy Computer History Turned Into Music

Colossus
The rebuilt Colossus computer at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park (all images courtesy Matt Parker)

Late at night in Great Britain’s National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, some of the world’s oldest computers awoke from mechanical slumber. Composer and sound artist Matt Parker made 126 recordings from seven decades of historical machines to preserve their endangered sounds and transform them into music.

“For preservation sake, often the objects of our past become confined to clear perspex boxes to keep prying hands off of them,” Parker told Hyperallergic. “It means that all we can do is look at these peculiar objects through a box and read the adjacent text.”

The Imitation Archive
Album cover for ‘The Imitation Archive’ (click to enlarge)

The Imitation Archive debuted as a composition earlier this month, with the full 34 minutes of music available as a pay-what-you-wish download on Bandcamp. All of the Birmingham, England-based artist’s recordings were also added to the British Library Sound and Vision Archive. As an artist-in-residence at the museum, he recorded heritage machines like a room-sized, rebuilt 1940s Colossus, the first digital computer in the world once housed in Block H that now hosts the museum. He also listened to the 1939 Bombe, an electromechanical cryptology device developed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, and the 1950s Harwell Dekatron (WITCH), the oldest functioning digital computer. Bletchley Park was the base of England’s World War II codebreaking, where Turing cracked the German Enigma machine (the name The Imitation Archive references the 2014 The Imitation Game film on Turing’s work there).

In his 2014 The Cloud is more than Air and Water, Parker focused his sound art on the sonorous hums of contemporary cloud computing. This project recalls a noisier era, the clamor of which could easily disappear. “The Colossus rebuild project is faithfully using techniques and equipment made with the original constructions,” Parker explained. “An engineer told me that there is maybe only ten more years left of the vacuum tubes used to program it. What will happen when it runs out of tubes?”

Harwell Dekatron Computer (WITCH)
Harwell Dekatron Computer (WITCH) at the National Computing Museum

As much as possible, Parker recorded at night in the stillness of the closed museum, collaborating with volunteers and engineers who are essential to keeping the machines running. He described recording a giant Powas Samas punchcard reader: “The man was in his mid-80s and told me how he had to fully retire from the museum the next day. As we started to run the machine, it suddenly found a fault and broke mid-recording. I have about 10 seconds of the machine working on record. He was the only man at the museum able to fix it and he was leaving.”

Atvidaberg Facit-Model No. C1-19-Sweden
Atvidaberg Facit-Model No. C1-19-Sweden at the National Computing Museum
Grimme, Natalis and Co.-Model Name. Brunsviga 13ZK-Germany
Grimme, Natalis and Co.-Model Name. Brunsviga 13ZK-Germany at the National Computing Museum

An archive of sound can preserve elements of the functioning experience, but what makes The Imitation Archive especially valuable is how in music it captures the spirits of the machines. Parker stated: “I think the biggest challenge for me was to make something that I enjoyed listening to, that I felt carried some of the emotions of the history of certain objects, particularly that reflected the intensity and stifling conditions of working in Block H with Colossus or in a room where 20 Bombes were in constant operation by the women engineers (WRENS) who worked there.”

The heavy computing sounds of WITCH reverberate in his layered composition with deep, echoing sounds that crescendo with clicking rhythms. Throughout the soundscape is the pulsing cadence of relay switches and transformers, quicker as the decades go by, transitioning to huge 1970s mainframes and 1980s desktops. In the glitchy patterns there’s a feeling of constant movement, representing the durational use of the machines that often ran 24 hours a day, and the progress of technology. Our computers today are mostly silent, gently whirring devices, and The Imitation Archive recalls the cacophony that accompanied the birth of our modern machines.

h/t NPR

Matt Parker’s The Imitation Archive is available for download on Bandcamp.

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