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MMD > Archives > December 1998 > 1998.12.12 > 09Prev  Next

Music Played by IBM Line Printer
By Karl Ellison

IBM Punch-card Mechanical Music

Here's a form of punched-card mechanical music I don't recall being
discussed.  In 1981, the University of Hartford was just replacing
their punch-card input, line-printer output IBM batch clunker mainframe
computer with a new DEC VAX.  The old computer took up one side of a
computer lab for that year, waiting to have it's precious metals

I recall 3 stacks of IBM computer cards about 4 inches high with
elastics around them, each labeled with a song title.  The one that
caught my eye was "Anchors Aweigh".  I remember someone loading the
cards into the card reader, giving the "Load" command from the front
panel, the cards were read in short order.  Next, you set the memory
address to the start using it's hex keypad, then pressed "Start".

After a second, the line printer came alive, it's paper advancing in
microsteps in a particular rhythm.  When actual printing started, The
sound of the printer striking the paper with different configurations
of character lines was playing the song, "Anchors Aweigh!"  It was very
clear and loud with the printer door open.  The programs just played
the song's chorus, looping over and over.  When you'd had enough, you
pressed the "Halt" button, and were left with about a meter of paper
off the printer that was completely blackened by the ribbon's ink.

Someone must have mapped particular line print configurations to sound
particular notes, and the rest of the job was to just play them in a
musical sequence.  I'm sure they could have gone as far as to configure
different instruments, contriving a whole stop-list of sounds.

I remember the higher pitched sounds being the clearer notes (that
drove through your head!), while the low pitch notes bled with the
drone of the printer's stepping motor.  Unless you have access to a big
company or a university, it's difficult to find a true line printer
these days, everything now being ink jet, laser, or dot-matrix.

I now wonder, what was the extent of this "punched music library?"
Someone clearly had some time on their hands at good ol' UHA.  Perhaps
someone will produce a CD "A byte out of time -- Rachmaninoff plays his
solo printer works on the incomparable IBM 650"

Karl Ellison
Salem, Massachusetts

(Message sent Sat 12 Dec 1998, 13:30:24 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  IBM, Line, Music, Played, Printer

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