NPF: MY INSTRUCTOR WAS MR. LANGLEY

Posted in No Politics Friday on September 16th, 2011 by Ed

I'm on my way to the Konczal wedding, so this will be somewhat brief.

Long-time readers know that 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my favorite films. Among its most recognizable scenes occurs toward the end of the second act, when Frank Bowman shuts down (euthanizes?) the sentient supercomputer HAL. As his "higher brain functions" are shut down, HAL reverts to his most basic programming: a short speech introducing himself, explaining his origin, and offering to sing the listener a song, "Daisy Bell." Embedding is disabled, but the whole fantastic scene is available here.

It turns out that Arthur C. Clarke was visiting a friend at the Bell Labs facility in Murray Hill in 1963 when one of its supercomputers, the IBM 704, demonstrated the first ever instance of programmed, computer synthesized speech. Among the tricks IBM 704 was programmed to do was singing the chorus of 'Daisy Bell." Here is the original recording – some famous quotes are spoken first (including "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you," the first words ever spoken by telephone) and the song begins around 0:48. I advise against listening to this immediately before trying to sleep.

Bell Labs based its accomplishment on technology that, surprisingly, was old even in 1963. The first analog Vocoder was demonstrated as early as 1935.

Today, vintage analog Vocoders are worth thousands of dollars, having won a cult following due to their use by early electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk and Big Black…not to mention cementing a place in the heart of every American male of Generation X by providing the voice of Soundwave.