HAL on Earth

Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.

Sci-fi fans will recognise the “dying words” of HAL, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL goes mad, you see, and murders all but one of the crew of a spaceship. The one survivor shuts HAL down, and as his circuits die HAL sings “Daisy Bell” not especially well.

The film was made in 1968, when 2001 seemed a very long time in the future. It is full of guesses about what computers might be like in this glittering space age, and some things are wildly excessive – HAL can lip-read, from side on. Other things are pure 1968. HAL, like the computers of that period is HUGE, a giant mainframe the size of a small house. That’s how computers were back then. They were enormous, and very expensive, so there were not many of them. A university, a government agency or a large company might have one.

Something else about the computers of the late 1960s. Their information capacity was tiny, pitiful to modern eyes. A standard smart phone has about 64 gigabytes of memory. A gigabyte is 1000 megabytes. A megabyte is 1000 kilobytes. And the big, expensive computer you are about to meet could store 32 kilobytes of data.

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The ICL 1905 computer had a massive 32 kilobyte memory.

Let me introduce the ICL 1905. It was a computer, which was used by the Queensland Main Roads Department. And, in January 1969, it starred in a recording. Someone, the equivalent of HAL’s Mr Langley, had programmed it to play music. What does it sound like? Pretty much what you would expect from a computer with a 32K memory: truly awful.

But the fact that someone went to the trouble of pressing a record, to preserve this ghastly beeping for posterity, shows that getting a computer to play music was a real accomplishment, something exciting and new in 1969.

And now? It sounds like HAL on Earth. But it is fascinating, and truly weird. Just listen!

Side A

Side B

  • Artist: MRD [Queensland Main Roads Department] Computer ICL 1905 32K
  • A Side: Brahms: Waltz in A Flat
  • B Side: B1 Wagner: Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, B2 Colonel Bogey
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: custom pressing
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: January 1969

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