1 (edited by utz 2021-05-18 21:47:52)

Topic: A Timeline of 1-Bit Music (1949-1979)

In the 1840s, Ada Lovelace, who studied the relation of maths and music among other things, predicted that one day computers would be used to make music. And right she was.

This timeline provides an overview over the history of 1-bit music (including indirect forms such as Radio Frequency Interference music) from the beginning of the electronic computer era to the advent of affordable microcomputers. It inevitably also gives a glimpse into the the history of computer music in general. In current literature, the early days of computer music are commonly being reduced to a few academic experiments, when actually an active and diverse, though mostly non-professional, computer music scene has existed ever since the advent of digital computers.

If you know about any 1-bit music activity in the years 1949-1979 which is not listed here, or if you have any more detailed knowledge about the events in the list, I would be very pleased to receive your input.

A Timeline of 1-Bit Music

including AM radio interference music



  • Based on conversations with musical theorist William Holder, English scientist Robert Hooke devises a mechanical apparatus that produce tones of varying pitch by continually triggering clicks with a toothed wheel. In the first half of the 19th century, French physicist Félix Savart took up the idea and refined the mechanism. His machine became known as the Savart wheel. source


  • Scottish natural philosopher John Robinson describes a method of producing sound by opening and closing a pneumatic tube at regular intervals. His musical siren is later refined by Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour, and to this day all mechanical sirens work based on this principle. source



  • Frances E. "Betty" Holberton programs the BINAC to play "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" to the team who built the machine at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, PA. It is not known for sure on which date it happened, most likely on the occasion of the final verification testing on April 7th. source.



  • Alan Turing outlines the theoretical basis for 1-bit music in his manual for the Manchester Mark I computer. source


  • US Air Force Lieutenant Herb Finney writes a sound routine for the UNIVAC (serial #2) in early 1951, and makes the computer play "The Blue Tango", "The Air Force Song", "The Eyes of Texas", and more via the system speaker (which is not connected to the computer directly, but rather picks up AM radio interference). The program is said to have been distributed with every UNIVAC installation. source, source, source

  • Frances E. "Betty" Holberton programs the UNIVAC I (serial #1, the one for the US Census Bureau) to play music via AM radio interference at the official "dedication" event of the machine at the Eckert–Mauchly factory in Philadelphia, on either June 14th or possibly March 31st. As of now, this is the first confirmed public performance of computer music in history. Reportedly, the program by Herb Finney was written before the on by Betty Holberton. source

  • Geoff Hill programs the CSIR Mk1 (CSIRAC) at the University of Sydney to play 1-bit music via the attached hooter. The music is performed in public on August 7th-9th. source, reconstructed recording, more recordings

  • On December 7th, the BBC records the Ferranti Mark I at the University of Manchester playing 1-bit music. Programming by Christopher Strachey. The recording was previously said to have been done on September 7th, but more recent research indicates that this is incorrect, and Strachey only completed the program around September 27th. There is also a second, unofficial version of the recording which was cut on acetate disk at the request of a certain Frank Cooper. This is the oldest surving original recording of 1-bit/computer music. source/recording, recording (F. Cooper version), source, source (F. Cooper interview), program analysis, further notes

  • On December 16th, CBS broadcasts an interview with Jay W. Forrester, leader of the team at MIT that built the Whirlwind I computer. Among other things, Forrester demoes the machine playing some music.


  • Norman Hardy and Ted Ross write a music program for the IBM 701. For this purpose, a control lamp on the console was rewired to the systems' speaker. According to Norman Hardy the music was even recorded on vinyl, but it seems the record is lost. source


  • Morton Bernstein writes the JOHNNIAC Music Assembler. The program even makes it into the official JOHNNIAC software library. source, source, source, source (p 15f.) Possibly predated by music on the SEAC. source


  • After the CSIRAC computer is transfered to Melbourne in 1955, Tom Cherry continues where Geoff Hill left off. Cherry writes an improved music driver that interprets score-based input. source (p46 f.)

  • Chris P. Burton writes a music program for the Ferranti Perseus. It even accompanies the speaker sounds with rhythmic tape loading clicks. (Perhaps the first occurance of interrupting click drums?) According to the author, it was a tradition for Ferranti maintenance engineers to write these programs, and they existed on all Ferranti machines. Perhaps unsurprisingly so, as most of them were designed by a certain Christopher Strachey. source, source



  • The MIT Lincoln Lab TX-2 plays music. The machine had a rather large ferrit core memory and two high-quality console speakers, which together provided for about 90 seconds of stereo music. source, source, source

  • The IBM 704 has a monophonic music program. Keith Reid-Green converts "The Wedding March" for a friend who is about to marry, but the bride doesn't approve. source, source


  • An unknow programmer at UNIVAC's headquarters in  Philadelphia, PA, programs 'Melody Maker' for the UNIVAC 1103. The exact date remains unknown, but according to source it was prior to John Kamena's work in 1958. source

  • The IBM AN/FSQ-7 is introduced in 1958. According to Doug Elliott, it was also used to play Christmas music, though the exact year remains unknown. Note that the IBM AN/FSQ-7 (aka Whirlwind II) is a direct descendant of the Whirlwind I, which already played music in 1951.  source

  • Music on the Pilot Model ACE, and later on the regular ACE machines. The exact year is unknown, must have been between 1950 (first running tests) and 1955 (Pilot ACE is scrapped). source, source

  • The English Electric DEUCE (commercial version of the Pilot Model ACE, delivered in 1955) programming manual list a command for sounding the computer's buzzer. Needless to say, the usual course of events ensued. Several people wrote music routines for the machine, among them Denis Brockington, John "Speedy" Denison, Harold Fineberg (who made a piano program which was controlled by console switches), and Richard Young (who even accompanied the machine on his trombone). source

  • A music program existed on the Ferranti Pegasus, author unknown. The exact year is unknown, probably 1958 or 1959. binary+emu

  • The IBM NORC military computer plays music during the yearly "open day" of the lab at Dahlgren, VA. (This puts the first possible date at 1955). source

  • The ARMAC at the Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam is used to play the Dutch national anthem whenever a member of the royals would visit. source, source (translated)

  • The Dansk Aritmetisk Sekvens Kalkulator (DASK) in Kopenhagen, Denmark plays music through the speaker built into the control panel. source

  • The Telecommunications Research Establishment Automatic Computer (TREAC) in Malvern, England apparantly played music. Sources are very vague, so more research is needed. source source

  • The LEO I computer plays music. source, source

  • Gernot Metze programs the ILLIAC I to play music. Exact date unknown, must be between 1953-55. source



  • Peter R. Samson develops Music X, a monophonic 1-bit music compiler for the TX-0 (a machine based on the earlier IBM AN/FSQ-7 resp. Whirlwind II). He later wrote another 1-bit compiler that allowed for light pen-controlled editing of music. According to rumour he later expanded that software to 3 channels. source, source, source, source code.

  • The first CDC 1604 is delivered to the US Navy with a music program written by Charles "Chuck" L. Hawley. The program operates on the machine's built-in 3-bit DAC which was connected to a tube amplifier. source (p 26)

  • The British LEO III computer performs 1-bit music during a visit to the manufacturer's offices by the Duke of Edinburgh. source, recording


  • LaFarr Stuart programs the CYCLONE mainframe at Iowa State University to play 1-bit music. The CYCLONE is a clone of the previously mentioned JOHNNIAC, by the way. source, source

  • Building on his earlier work on the IBM 701, Norman Hardy programs the IBM 7090 to play 3-voice beeper music. source


  • LaFarr Stuart presents his 1-bit music on the NBC radio network program Monitor. source

  • Peter R. Samson develops the 4-channel 'Harmony Compiler' for the PDP-1 (the successor of the TX-0). It is later used by Bill Ackerman, Dan Smith, and others to transcribe various pieces of classical music and more. The year is often incorrectly stated as 1964, but the source code reveals the date 10/6/1962. The music is output via speakers connected to 4 flip-flops, which are in turn connected the machine's "control flag" lamps. Some additional filtering is applied to the speaker lines, achieving a rather pleasing sound (so it's a kind of "1-bit plus"). The music is later even recorded on vinyl. source, source, recordings, source code and more, video presentation, recording of the vinyl, new presentation by P. Samson, with technical explanation (2018)

  • "Rekengeluiden van PASCAL", a 7", 45rpm vinyl with sounds and music from the Philips Automatic Sequence Calculator (aka Philips Akelig Snelle Calculator), is released by Philips' in-house magazine, the "Technisch Tijdschrift".  source, recording, discogs

  • The IBM 704 at the IBM Labs at Mohansic, NY plays 4-voice Christmas music, using accumulator lines connected to a speaker. This is unrelated to the work by Max Mathews, which used a more complex DAC setup. source

  • IBM's official software catalogue mentions two music programs: MUSIC for IBM 705, written by R. W. Bremer, W. M. Selden, and A. S. Petroulakis at IBM HQ, and "Computer Automated Music" for IBM 650, written by Norman V. Plyer at Univ. of Rochester. The latter appearantly supports percussion via an IBM 407's card puncher. source (p. 181, 241)

  • A music program is available for the Danish Regnecentralen GIER in late 1961 or early 1962. By 1971, multiple advanced music programs exist for the machine. source, source, recordings, software


  • Instead of learning FORTRAN, high school kids at LA City Schools prefer to load up the local IBM 1620 with RFI music programs. source

  • In November/December, the Regnecentralen GIER plays music at an exhibition in Warsaw, which is also broadcast on TV. This is currently the earliest documented incident of a computer playing music in Eastern Europe. source

  • T.H. O'Beirne in Glasgow starts to explore the musical capabilities of the Barr&Stroud SOLIDAC mini-computer, giving a first public demonstration in 1965. Despite the machine effectively running at just 30 KHz, he even managed to squeeze some polyphony out of it. O'Beirne published several papers on the subject. He also creates an interactive music program named ORPHEUS. In 1967, Barr&Stroud releases an LP with various permutations of Mozart's Musical Dice Game. source, source, source, recordings, source/recordings


  • The Telefunken TR4 mainframe at the Office of Finances in Düsseldorf, DE, is (ab)used to play RFI music source


  • At its shutdown ceremony, the EDSAC 2 computer plays "The Last Post", using the Music Compiler written by Richard Jennings (probably in 1962/63) source, source


  • Peter Samson's 4-voice player MUSCOM ported to PDP-6. Later expanded to 6 channels (1-bit, with optional 4-voice DAC output) as BIG Music Processor, also by P. Samson. source source, source

  • EUTERPE-LISP, a LISP engine producing 6-voice music on PDP-6 with DEC Precision Display Type 340 as DAC. By Marvin Minsky, for MIT/Project MAC. EUTERPE's output is compatible with Samson's MUSCOM. source, source


  • Göran Sundqvist records 1-bit music on the SAAB D21 computer. Seems the technique was already applied to the machine's prototype, the D2. Later a complex DAC was added, thus leaving the world of 1-bit music behind. The recordings were released on vinyl in 1970. source, recordings, source, discogs

  • 4-voice music routine on PDP-7, by Ronald F. Brender.source code, binaries


  • Nellie the School Computer (actually an Elliott 405 machine) is recorded by the BBC playing music over the build-in buzzer. Chances are the music program already existed at the computer's previous owner, the Nestlé corporation, who donated the machine to the Forest School in 1965. source, recording.

  • A program for IBM 1401 that plays music on the 1403 line printer is mentioned in the official software catalogue. Written by M. J. Peskin.source


  • The Elliott 803 is used to play music. Exact year unknown. source, recording, source code (recreated)

  • The Elliott 900 series of computers is introduced in 1962. Several music programs exist for these systems, though their exact year of creation remains unknown. Andrew Herbert wrote a new player called AHJ Music in 2014. source, source, source, source, source, software, recordings

  • RFI music on the IBM 1401 in Iceland and in the US. recordings, reconstruction

  • A music routine for the Ferranti Sirius, by K.C. Johnson and J.E. Thompson. Possibly other routines were made for the machine as well. sourcesource, source

  • Music is made on the Swedish Facit EDB 3 computer. One example tune is later released on a commemoratory 7" vinyl by the computers' manufacturer, Industridata AB. source, recording

  • The SWAC machine at the University of California in Los Angeles plays 1-bit music. The musical history of the SWAC probably dates back to the early 50s, but so far no substantial documentation regarding this has turned up. source

  • David Parsons programs the EMIDEC 1100 at Barclays' Computer Centre in London to play music over the console speaker, which is demonstrated to visitors of the centre, and supposedly even featured on the BBC. source

  • Meanwhile, back at EMI Electronics, someone has the ingenious idea of syncing four EMIDEC 1100 together with long coaxial cables and having them play a string quartet by Mozart. source



  • Thomas Van Keuren programs the UNIVAC 1050-II at the US Air Force base in Da Nang, Vietnam to play "Ebb Tide" by Robert Maxwell, and more, in full 1-bit glory. This program might be the first that specifically provides for the simulation of chords by fast arpeggiation. recording


  • Two RFI music programs for IBM 1620, made by Laura B. Steele resp. Ron Davis, are mentioned in the official software catalogue.source


  • RFI music routine for the Altair 8080 by Paul Mork. source



  • The "Music System" by Software Technology Corp. (aka "Software Music Synthesis System" by California Software Co.) is released. Developed by Jon Bokelman, the Music System consist of a simple S-100 DAC board and additional driver software, which could be installed on a wide range of 8080 and Z80 based computers. It outputs 3-4 channels of 1-bit music depending on the host system and configuration, making it one of the first true multi-channel 1-bit solutions. software, recording (SOL-20), recording (Altair 8800), manual, manual (SMSS)


  • 4-voice music on the HP2100A. Probably inspired by Pete Samson's work on the PDP. source

  • A student at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee programs the local MODCOMP II minicomputer to play music over it's DAC. source

Re: A Timeline of 1-Bit Music (1949-1979)

a very impressive and precise timeline!!