“A Different Engine” presented by Helyer


Session Title:

  • Performance (Papers)

Presentation Title:

  • A Different Engine




  • A Different Engine.This paper examines the historical exchange of concepts, images and technologies between East and West via the overland and maritime Silk Trade routes. In particular the paper will focus upon the importance of the Arabic traditions of Astronomy, Mathematics and Navigation showing how these facilitated this trade, as well as prompting the Renaissance in Europe.By employing the metaphor of pattern making and the weave of fabrics traded along the silk route the paper will examine the provenance of computer control which can be traced to the early industrial practices textile     production, where loom operating instructions were encoded as a series of punch cards, in essence ‘digitising’ weaving patterns in Jacquard looms.The virtues of this novel punch card system were not lost on Charles Babbage who adopted them to drive his Difference Engine, from where they were rapidly adapted to automate mechanical music devices, the punch patterns becoming, in effect a form of graphical score capable of sequencing music boxes’ barrel organs and later Pianolas.The Pianola (or Player Piano) was the most sophisticated manifestation of this development and in terms of    reproduction quality was far superior to the nascent technologies of audio recording and transcription, such as the Edison Wax Cylinder or disc based Phonography, by virtue of being able to not simply encode musical pitch but also performance characteristics.Ironically it was the punch card and subsequent punch tape technology that enabled the birth of the modern computer and its entwined history with music.The first public performance of computer generated music was demonstrated at the Australian Computer Conference in 1951 by a team from CSIRAC (council for Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer) who fed their massive computer with spools of punched paper.

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