Monday, February 19, 2007

Garages, Radios and The Altair 8800: How hackers invented music for personal microcomputers

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Personal microcomputers had a rocky start. Before the golden era of user dominated personal computing, personal computers made wonderful bookends, and that was about it. Back in the year 1975, the shag haired, pocket-protector wearing hackers of Silicon Valley's Homebrew Computing Club found their exuberance for their new technology only slightly dampened by this fact; being technology fetishists back before having a fetish was cool, the potential held by home computers far outweighed their initial apparent uselessness. Take, for instance, the Altair 8800. It was the first personal microcomputer to hit mass production. It could be bought fully assembled, or for cheaper in a kit. It was, as these pictures show, basically just an lame little box with lights and switches, and that was it. No keyboard, no monitor, no mouse. No hard drive. Minesweeper and solitaire were not included with the OS, as there was no OS. While capable of running programs and carrying out complex mathematical calculations, it had one stunning basic problem: a total lack of input and output devices.

One night, as Homebrew Computing Club member and HAM radio enthusiast Steve Dompier hit the 'run' switch on the front of his Altair, something unexpected happened; his nearby shortwave radio gear emitted a sudden blast of irritating atonal garbage. Investigating the problem with the aid of a guitar, he tracked and mapped one note ( f-sharp) to a specific section of the Altair's memory; after that, he began to logically map out the rest of the tones on the harmonic scale to their respective memory locations in the Altair's RAM. It is worth noting that this was simultaneously the birth of music for the personal computer, the first documented successful program for a personal microcomputer, and the discovery of the first I/O device for the personal computer, all at the same time. After eight hours, Dompier had mapped the scale, created the very first note sequencer, and had begun programming in the first piece of sheet music he could find: 'Fool In The Hill' by The Beatles (linked above).

When he debuted this at the next meeting of the Homebrew club, it left the crowd absolutely speechless. Up until that point, not even the most dedicated home computing enthusiast had seen one of their coveted boxes do something, much less do anything so cool as playing music. It had been done before, but only massive machines that lived deep inside of laboratories. When the screeching, buzzing rendition of McCartney and Lennon's hit song finished crackling its way through the speaker on a small portable radio, absolute silence reigned. And then, the music unexpectedly began again, this time playing another composition-- a song called Daisy.

Daisy is a short composition by a man named Max Mathews, and we all owe him a lot. During his time as a researcher at Bell Laboratories, he invented sound synthesis, and in 1957 programmed an IBM 704, a computer that required an entire room of its own, to play his seventeen second composition. Oddly enough, it is this very song which HAL plays as he is dismantled at the end of 2001: A Space Oddyssey.

It's strange to look at a product like Ableton Live, Protools or Final Scratch with the Altair in mind. While the fusion of music and computing technology was a logical eventuality, it's still a shocking thing to behold such humble roots. Not only that, knowing stuff like this impresses punters, believe me. More about the Altair can be found at, source of the sound file above. Special thanks to Bruce at Digibarn for his assistance in putting this article together.

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