A computer that crops up again and again in classic old photographs of the early era of computing is the IMB 1401 Data Processing System, a stored-program transistor-logic computer from 1959. It happened to be first mass-produced digital business computer (10,000 existed in the mid-1960s) that could be afforded by many businesses worldwide. The machine came with 4096 characters of memory, with a maximum expansion of up to 16k, the monthly rental for a 1401 was $2,500! Jóhann Jóhannsson, an Icelandic musician, composer and producer has created an album of music commemorating the life (and death) of this computer system – ‘IBM 1401, A Users Manual’.
The chief maintenance engineer for this machine (when it arrived in Iceland) was Jóhann Gunnarsson, (Jóhann Jóhannsson’s father). A keen musician, Gunnarsson senior learned of an obscure method of making music on this computer, a purpose for which this business machine was not designed. The method was simple – the computer’s memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves and by programming the memory in a certain way and by placing a radio receiver next to it, melodies could captured by a receiver as a delicate, melancholy sine-wave tone.
When the 1401 was taken out of service in 1971, rather than being just thrown away, it was given a little farewell ceremony where its melodies were played for the last time and documented for posterity. The motifs of the ‘funeral music’ were used as sonic material for Jóhannsson’s album.
The track ‘Printer’ uses the voice of an instructor, reading through the maintenance manual, while elegiac strings build into a kind of requiem. It imparts an emotional connection to the 1401 and continues an ongoing fascination with the anthropomorphism of technology. The final track, ‘The suns gone dim and the sky’s turned black’ uses a computer reading of a Dorothy Parker poem, as if the IMB 1401 was conscious, and aware, of its own permanent departure: ‘The sun’s gone dim, and the moon’s gone black. For I loved him, and he didn’t love back’