I’ve been posting a lot about how things that we think are modern today actually were created in the past. One is sound design, and another is a computer generated voice and singing. That’s something that an IBM 7094 computer actually did as an experiment way back in 1961, and it influenced a blockbuster movie as a result.
An IBM 7094 computer back in the ’60s cost the equivalent of around $20 million, so there weren’t that many around. In fact, only about 300 were built over a decade. The 7094 was extremely good at math in that it could handle 250,000 calculations per second, but besides replacing loads of office workers and accountants, there wasn’t a huge amount of non-military things it could do.
IBM wanted to sell more of them, but they needed something sexier than calculation stats to do it. That’s when the idea to make it sing came about, and they employed four engineers from the famous Bell Labs to do it. This was the first computer music project (electronic music actually started in the 1930s).
The Bell Labs team needed a song first, so they decided on “Daisy Bell,” which most of us know as “A Bicycle Built For Two”. It was a simple melody and pretty well-known since it didn’t have to be hip and new to work.
The result is a very short performance that lasts less than 2 minutes, with the vocal coming in the last 30 seconds (watch the video below). A singing voice similar to what that the came up with is still used today as a generic computer voice (on The Simpsons for instance).
It was an interesting little experiment, but it did leave a lasting impression on visiting sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke in 1962. He incorporated it as a key piece of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Later in the movie of the same name, a new version of the song was used instead of the one from the 7904 since it sounded a bit more sinister.
Remember that this is no big deal today, but back in 1961 teaching a computer to sing was the stuff of science fiction. Have a listen for yourself, and read Ted Gioia’s post that has more detail.