Multi-Media Computer Evolution

Today, computers have native, appropriate devices for performing multimedia functions. This is a review of how we had to be clever at first to expand our computers beyond numeric calculations.

The engineers hooked up a speaker to tap one line from the computer memory and it beeped as the “1” bits flowed on the line. The computer operators could hear the beeping in different patterns that could be interpreted as normal progress or an endless repeating pattern that indicated the program was in an infinite loop and had to be stopped. The speaker had a thin tone, but it was obvious that it could be controlled better by sending data to that memory line in a specific pattern. Different patterns for the various notes on a piano keyboard were made and which note and how long to play it were listed to create the music notation.

The note A, below middle C on a piano keyboard, is 440 cycles per second (Hertz). The next A is 880 Hz, because octaves double the frequency and cut in half the wavelength of corresponding notes. The ratio between consecutive notes is the 12th root of 2 (that is 1.0594630944) because there are 12 notes (7 white and 5 black keys on a keyboard) per octave. Multiply that number 12 times and you will get 2.0000000009. Starting with 440, multiply it by 1.0594630944 and you will get the frequency of the next note and do that to each result for a total of 12 times and you will get 880.

Without modifying the electronic circuits, other clever schemes created music. At B&O Railroad the song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was played on the tape drives by buzzing the tape forward and back a short distance, depending upon the note to be played. This was the Datamatic 1000 made by Honeywell and Raytheon in the 1950s. It had 3″ wide magnetic tape that was 2,700′ long.

Impact printers used small electromagnetic hammers to knock the paper into the ink ribbon as the type faces zoomed past the paper. The printer could make a kazoo buzzing sound as they printed. Different lines of characters would produce different notes and at 10 lines per second, the length of a note was controlled by repeating a line.  To save paper, the program would overprint lines for a note before advancing the paper for the next note.

The first song sung by a computer was “Daisy Bell” (also called “A Bicycle Built for Two”), in 1961, by an IBM-7094. It is available by searching for “daisy computer song” online.

Half-tone pictures were printed using the character set of the printers. Various characters and overprinted characters made different gray levels. The University of Maryland MAD (Michigan Algorithm Decoder) programming language compiler would sometimes print a picture of Alfred E. Newman, from MAD magazine, if you made the right number of errors. Search for “ASCII Star Wars” to see an ultimate ASCII art project. Search for “ASCII JFK” to see another classic ASCII artwork. ASCII is the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. It is the first page of the Unicode character set.

When PCs were first developed, the IBM PC monitor screen did not have the same refresh rate as NTSC television. The screen image would tumble when a PC monitor was shown on TV. The work-around was to have a hidden Commodore AMIGA computer display the image because it used the NTSC standard for its displays.

The Amiga was the first multi-media computer with video and sound and other channels integrated. The Disney Hollywood Studios Indiana Jones Adventure was run by Amiga computers, originally. A MOOG Synthesizer was a difficult device to program but the modern MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) has made digital instruments easy to integrate into computer systems for control and storage of musical files. A keyboard and other musical instruments could be input devices to computers and can play stored MIDI file music sent from the computer.

These multi-media techniques were not perfect but foreshadowed advances to come. They were impressive that they worked at all.

The modern age of digital input and output interfaces has sent all the very clever work-arounds (the term “hack” was not yet famous) to the museum or dumpster. You can buy Gaming Computers with all the latest Multi-Media features you could want. Even laptops and tower PCs are now close behind.