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.


  • Sorry, Ed.

    Frank Poole (killed by pod controlled by HAL). Dave Bowman, lobotomizes HAL.

    "Stop, Dave. Please. Stop. Will you stop, Dave?"

    One of the greatest scenes in film.

  • Two divided by zero! Two divided by zero, zero, zero!

    I used to have a Speak-n-spell and a Speak-n-math. Always a bit creepy.

  • … and that technology lives on in every DAW in use in audio production today – and more or less as all of digital audio – all descended from the progeny of the great Max Mathews:

    For a super creepy-cool coda to this post, see Vernor Vinge's awesome essay on technological singularity here:

    Hmm… seriously scary shit but somehow feels good to post something not overtly political here…

  • Yeah, that's not a euthanization. That's a straight murder. I mean, you understand why Dave's doing it (and the book makes HAL out to be less of a jerk than the movie), but it's a murder.

    And, for some reason, it's more disturbing than just about any other on-screen murder I've ever seen. It's slow, it's deliberate, and HAL is absolutely begging Dave to stop–"he" is begging for "his" very life. Throw in the fact that Dave is destroying the only other sentient being in a billion-mile radius, dooming him to solitude and probable madness, and it's absolutely chilling.

  • Never mind Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga – I'm waiting for the IBM 704 and Stephen Hawking duet album to come out!

  • Ivan Ivanovich Renko says:

    Well… you'd want HAL dead if he'd just stranded you outside the ship without a helmet, too. Murder? Or justice?

  • @Vanya: What the? Look, you might call it revenge, but it ain't justice. "Murder" and "revenge" are not disjoint categories. HAL didn't go to trial and receive sentence, so there's no way you can call Dave's actions justice.

  • If you go by Clarke's explanations in the novels of 2001 and 2010, HAL and Bowman were both trying to do the same thing: eliminate someone whose presence was preventing them from successfully completing their mission.

  • Yeah, even though 2010 was doomed to pale in comparison to Kubrick's movie (and, thanks to the Soviet Union falling apart nearly twenty years before the events of the movie, a little embarrassing in retrospect), it had some great scenes with HAL.

    Speaking of great scenes, there's one in Steven Levy's book Hackers in which one of the first microcomputers is programmed to play music. Almost by accident, its owner discovers that activating certain locations in the memory register created electromagnetic interference that could be picked up by a nearby radio, and that different locations created different frequencies that roughly corresponded to different musical notes. (Disclaimer: I'm not a programmer, it's been ages since I read the book, and I have no real idea if the above makes any sense.) The programmer brings the machine and radio to a meeting of his local homebrew computer club, enters the program (which he had to do one byte at a time by flipping little switches on the front of the machine), it plays "Daisy"… and the room goes wild.

  • FYI, and not that anyone would believe me, but I was up for the part of the Russian astronaut in "2010."
    Though born here, I speak Russian fluently, and was one of a couple of finalists fo the part.
    But I lost out on it when they decided to go with an actor from Russia who was a lot older, and had come in out of the blue.
    If you've ever been an actor, you know that's not that unusual.

    And "2010" can't hold a candle to "2001," even if I had been in it.

  • I attended the premiere at the Uptown Theater in DC back in '68.

    Dick Nixon and I did some shrooms before the show. We constantly had to shush Rock Hudson, who couldn't figure out "what the hell was going on".

  • @jude, vanya, jimcat, bozo: Don't forget that HAL also murdered the three or four other astronauts that were in suspended animation. Total body count: HAL 5, Dave 1. I've never looked at is revenge or justice, it is kill or be killed. HAL offed Dave's crewmates and attempted to kill him, and whether or not he was 'a good guy' at 'heart' doesn't really matter since the malfunction caused HAL to act as a sociopath. Yes, HAL was doing what he thought was best for the mission, but human life didn't factor in. Dave had to kill HAL or else be killed by HAL.

  • Weird. I had a voice synth card for my Apple II that sounded a lot like that IBM system.

    Also, the old Robot voice for the Mac sounded a lot like that.

  • c u n d gulag,

    No, I think Rock was a little busy with the submarine conning tower from "Ice Station Zebra".

  • I think I recall a few lines in Arthur Clarke's book-version to the effect that what was being done to HAL was more equivalent to him being put to sleep (all of his memories still being intact), but HAL had never been "asleep" before and didn't know that one can wake up afterwards, so he treated it as being a termination.

    I think I also recall that in the sequels, when HAL was reactivated, his memories _were_ largely intact, except for the period when he killed the other astronauts (it wasn't clear if he was lying about this lack of memory).

    Of course Kubrick clearly and intentionally made it look like HAL was being murdered, because it's much more dramatic that way.

    Real astronauts would have insisted on a big red kill-switch that would instantly disconnect HAL's autonomous higher functions, instead of having to access the central processing unit and pull out modules one at a time.

  • G'Day! Ginandtacos,
    Thanks for the info, I watch MLB games, I watched a NPF game in like 3rd grade and I don't really remember it and I just want to know if it's as entertaining as pro baseball
    Catch you again soon!

  • The singing of Daisy Bell sounded exactly like the Sing-a-Majig my daughter got for her 9th Bday this year. The thing creeped her out so much she took it to school and gave it away immediately. She didn't even want it in the house.

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