Category Archives: Sound

Hidden Histories of Information

Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, writes about the hidden histories of information. Information Age, a new £15.6m communication gallery, will reveal how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Our new gallery on information and communications technologies, Information Age, will open in Autumn 2014. It will look at the development of our information networks, from the growth of the worldwide electric telegraph network in the 19th century, to the influence of mobile phones on our lives today.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

One of the challenges of exhibiting the complex, and mostly intangible, world of information in a museum context is how you bring together the technology with the people involved and the information shared. The history of information is not just a neat history of devices. The telegraph instruments, radio and televisions, computers and mobile phones all reflect the material culture of information, but the history and future of information is much more complex.

One approach for dealing with this complexity is to look at how users, as well as innovators, have developed information and communications networks. Through personal stories we can connect visitors to the lived experience of technological change and reveal the significance of these networks to our ancestors’ lives.

As part of this approach we are conducting some new oral histories. We have recorded Gulf War veterans discussing their experience in 1991 of navigating around the desert both with, and without GPS. We have talked to the original engineers who set up Britain’s first commercial mobile phone networks for Vodafone and Cellnet in 1985. We will be talking to those who created and used the world’s first computer for commercial applications, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO 1) in 1951. We have also interviewed some of the women who worked at the last last manual telephone exchange in Greater London, the Enfield Exchange in North London.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

A lovely example of one account if this interview with Jean Singleton, a telephone operator who worked at a few different telephone exchanges, including Enfield when it was still a manual exchange. Jean left school at 15 when she started working for the GPO. Here she describes what made a good telephone operator.

We hope that detailed personal accounts like these will enthuse our audiences, reveal histories that are often not formally documented and show how centuries of ‘new’ information and communication devices have changed people’s lives.

Music by Muzak

This article was written by Ellie West-Thomas, An Electronic Music Volunteer.

As Christmas draws closer, how many of you have found yourselves in a shopping centre listening to the dulcet sounds of an instrumental version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’?

‘Department Store by Grace Golden’ ( © The National Archives / Science & Society Picture Library )

Whether we notice it or not, music is always around us. Music by Muzak is a company who scientifically produced to create background music for shopping centres, offices and even lifts. It has been scientifically proven that music effects you and whatever you are doing, however continuous music would very quickly lose its effectiveness as the mind pushed it further back in to the sub-conscious. The solution with Muzak is that a Muzak programme is never repeated, it is designed to be heard not listened to.

The history of Muzak in the UK started in September 1959 but its potential was born in the minds of two English scientists in 1934 who themselves have been influenced by the use made of music by the ancient Egyptians in increasing the efficiency of their labour force while building the Pyramids.  

Music by Muzak Promotional Folder (Credit: Ellie West-Thomas)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This music service is designed to increase sales and employee productivity, attract the right customers, impact dwell time, create a competitive advantage, differentiate your brand and build loyalty. Muzak is specially orchestrated and recorded for the time, the place and the activity. To be of constructive use, music must give a pleasant emotional stimulus without demanding attention. The scientists behind Muzak believe that the average worker goes through a cycle of efficiency each day. The time when the worker is most efficient is in the morning and after lunch. Muzak’s functional music programmes are designed so that when the worker is at their least efficient it should bring them back up to a good level of efficiency. To represent this discovery we are currently acquiring the ‘Muzak Promotional Folder’.

The science is true in essence, for example when you have a louder, heavier piece of music on in the car then you tend to drive a bit faster compared to someone who is listening to softer music like a classical piece. 

Now have a think about what kind of music you would want to listen to in such an environment, different people may want to hear different things whilst doing certain tasks. So if you were Muzak adding to your extensive archive library what music would you have and what for?

Circuit Bending Podcast

 Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.

One of the museum’s many wonderful volunteers recently took a trip to Brighton  in order to find out more about an object featured in our Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music exhibition. In an exhibition filled with many bizarre objects and unlikely musical instruments, the circuit bent Speak & Spell toy is certainly one of the most unusual and interesting items.

This brightly coloured jumble of knobs, switches and buttons was created by Andy Wheddon, an electronic musician, record label owner and member of the group of electronic music experts that helped curate the exhibition. He kindly agree to be interviewed about the instrument for the latest Science Museum podcast. Find out more about the modified Speak & Spell, it’s unusual origins and what it can tell us about electronic music and the work of Daphne Oram in the podcast below!

 Click here to listen to the podcast

Part-two of the interview will be posted here soon.

Andy's Modified Speak & Spell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Oramics Podcast!

Today we have a treat for fans of our Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic  exhibition; a lovely little behind the scenes podcast about the Oramics machine! A B-Side to the main exhibition, if you will.

Nick Street‘s documentary about the creation of the exhibition features many fascinating interviews with contemporary electronic musicians, colleagues of Daphne Oram, and the curators and conservators behind the exhibition. Bonus material from Nick’s interviews was used to create this podcast, which features Science Museum Conservator Dennis Kelles-Krause offering his take on the Oramics machine.

Click here to listen to the podcast

Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.

In search of the beat

One of my favourite objects in the Oramics to Electronica exhibition is the TB-303. Marketed in the 1980s as a ‘base accompaniment’ for solo musicians it failed to impress. As a consequence TB-303s soon became available on the second hand market, where they were picked up by inventive DJs creating a new type of sound know as House in cities such as Detroit and Chicago. By pushing the TB-303 to its limits they found a unique ‘liquid’ sound that became the signature sound of Acid House. Together with the TB-303, drum machines played a pivotal role in the development of House music. Today there are few music genres that don’t use electronically produced drum sounds.

Roland TB-303 synthesizer on loan from the Museum of Techno (Credit: Science Museum)

In our sound (re)production stores at Blythe you can find two big wooden boxes. They are very early ‘rhythm accompaniment’ instruments. Much like the TB-303 they were intended to accompany solo musicians. But unlike the TB-303 both instruments are not purely electronic devices, they have mechanical parts as well.

Chamberlin Rhythmate in storage at Blythe (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

The oldest of the two is a Chamberlin Rhythmate . It arrived on the market in the late 1940s, but was never very popular. It is a bit like a tape machine playing a pre-recorded drum rhythm on loop. Instead of one tape, there are fourteen. By moving the tape head from one tape to the other you can switch between rhythms. You can also speed up the tapes, or slow them down to change the tempo.

Wurlitzer Sideman in storage at Blythe House (Credit: Merel van der Vaart)

The other box is the aptly named Wurlitzer Sideman . This was built some ten years after the Rhythmate and doesn’t use pre-recorded material, but creates the sound electronically. Metal brushes attached to an arm sweep around a circular base, touching little contacts as they go along. When the brush and contact are connected, a current is sent to one of a number of sound-making circuits. The type of circuit that is activated decides the type of sound that is created. The speed at which the brush goes round defines the tempo.

It has been said that one of the founders of a well known company producing synthesisers and drum machines was inspired by the Sideman to start making his own drum machines. The company produced many popular instruments, but one of them initially didn’t do very well. It was called the TB-303.

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Patchwerk

This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Build-it-yourself Digital Oscillator module, 1985 ( Science Museum, London )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most interesting objects in our Oramics to Electronica exhibition is a home-built synthesiser module. This incredible object (donated by the museum’s very own Tim Boon!) clearly shares a heritage with the ingenious D.I.Y instruments created by ground-breaking electronic fiddlers, solderers and tweakers such as Daphne Oram. However, the object is also extremely significant because it shows that home-made electronic music existed long before Fruity Loops software came along in 1998.

A similar painstakingly crafted and incredibly complex home-built synthesiser recently went on display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s museum. Dr. Joseph Paradiso’s analogue synthesiser, which he has described as “probably the world’s largest homemade modular synthesiser”, was created over more than ten years using “information from manufacturers’ data sheets and hobbyist magazines”, scrounged spare parts and hacked keyboards. For years the instrument took over Paradiso’s living room, replacing couches and coffee tables with wires, processors, knobs and complex logic modules.

However, Paradiso’s synthesiser has now taken on a new virtual life: the synthesiser is attached to an online interface that enables you to control it in real-time from anywhere in the world. Thanks to the programme Patchwerk, Paradiso’s synthesiser can be controlled and modified from your internet browser, with the results streamed back to you and everyone else around the world that is logged in to the site and listening to the live stream.

The project offers an extremely fun and interesting way to engage with what is otherwise one of the more intimidating and less user-friendly types of electronic instruments - analogue synthesisers. What’s more, the instrument is an unusual merger of two of the most significant developments in the democratisation of electronic music: home-made synthesisers and computer-based emulators and virtual interfaces. Home-made synthesisers took electronic music out of professional studios and into the hands of amateur experimenters such as Messrs Boon and Paradiso by eliminating the need for costly physical equipment. Paradiso’ synthesiser, and the use of Patchwerk takes this a step further, combining a virtual and a physical interface in order to make a brilliant (if extreme) example of a hobbyist D.I.Y synthesiser available to anyone with access to the Internet!

Try the instrument out here, or watch Robert de Niro-lookalike Paradiso explain his synthesiser in more detail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and volunteer Science Museum research assistant.

The Closure of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

This artice was written by Ellie West-Thomas, Research Assistant for Electronic Music  

Fourteen years ago the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who created innovative music and techniques that made it one of the most significant influences on electronic music today, closed its doors for the last time. Maida Vale Studios, the home to the workshop, was a place once filled by people brimming with ideas that changed the course of Electronic Music.

The Workshop was set up to satisfy the growing demand in the late 1950s for “radiophonic” sounds from a group of producers and studio managers at the BBC, including Daphne Oram.

For some time there had been much interest in producing innovative music and sounds to go with the pioneering programming of the era. Much of The Radiophonic Workshop’s early work was in effects for radio, in particular experimental drama and “radiophonic poems”.

New sounds were created using recordings of everyday sounds such as voices, bells or even gravel as the raw materials for “radiophonic” manipulations. In these manipulations, audio tape could be played back at different speeds (altering a sound’s pitch), reversed, cut and joined, or processed using reverb or equalisation.

Sounds being made at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Science Museum)

Perhaps the most significant recording in Radiophonic Workshop history came in 1963 when they were approached by composer Ron Grainer to record a theme tune for an upcoming BBC television series called Doctor Who. Presented with the task of “realising” Grainer’s score, complete with its descriptions of “sweeps”, “swoops”, “wind clouds” and “wind bubbles”, it has become one of television’s most recognisable themes. Delia Derbyshire created it by using a plucked string, 12 oscillators and a lot of tape manipulation.

The sound of the TARDIS materialising and dematerialising was made in an even less conventional way. It was created by running keys along the rusty bass strings of a broken piano, with the recording slowed down to make an even lower sound. It may not sound like it but look back at some old Who and see if you can hear those keys. Why not try it yourself – grab your house keys and take them to some rusty strings of a piano.

On display in The Oramics to Electronica Exhibition are some of the objects used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create sounds. Here is an example.

A Lampshade used by Delia Derbyshire (Credit: Science Museum)

This lamp shade was used by Delia Derbyshire as a sound source for ‘Blue Veils & Golden Sands’ in 1967.

For a more contemporary performance, here’s a link to Coldcut who performed classic compositions at the Electric Proms in 2008, in an evening which was devoted to the Workshop . 

 

Lily Pavey’s Musikriter

This article was written by Ellie West-Thomas, Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Whilst exploring the Science Museum’s Stores at Blythe House, I came across something rather unusual. Being classically trained in music and music theory I have had to write a score and use musical notations on many occasions, but I never knew that a typewriter could be used to write sheet music.

The Musicgraph or Musikriter, was invented by Lily Pavey, patented in 1961 and completed in 1963. Pavey was the first inventor to receive National Assistance to enable her to continue working on this project.

It is a typewriter that when you strike the key, as on any normal typewriter, it sounds a note of music and prints the note in the proper place on music paper. The machine could write vertically as well as horizontally, meaning that anyone could fundamentally teach themselves the basics of music theory.           

Lily Pavey knew that other people had tried to perfect a musical typewriter but failed, however she was not a trained engineer. She studied music and mathematics and the mechanisms of the typewriter and electronics. She figured out how to give vertical elevation with moving the paper and how to create 8000 combinations with 46 keys.

The typewriter Lily Pavey tinkered with to make her prototype (Science Museum, Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

She hoped that more and more composers would be more encouraged to set down their new inspirations and ideas instead of following what had already been written.

It then was put in to production and called the Imperial Pavey Musigraph.

She developed the Musicgraph in to a device called the Spherigraph. Not only was it able to add words to music but it could be used for complicated maths, chemistry symbols and even ballet choreography notation.

The production model Pavey Musigraph (Science Museum, Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

Reel to reel

This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Ferrograph reel to reel tape recorder model 4A, c. 1960 (Science Museum, London)

Tape-players and tape-recorders were perhaps the most important instruments for many of electronic music’s pioneers, and for the staff of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in particular. With few electronic instruments existing, early sonic explorers were forced to adapt and abuse existing technologies, and practices such as tape-splicing soon became vital tools in the search for new sounds. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically for most musicians and electronic instruments and equipment have become ever more accessible and affordable. Or at least, this has been the situation in Western Europe. Many other areas of the globe have not always had such luxuries.

Latvian DJ Mr Tape during a 1991 DJ set

For dance music fans in the USSR of the early 1990s, records and decks were prohibitively expensive, if you could even find them. In Latvia several inventive young DJs turned to reel to reel tape players in order to make their own home-brew techno and house music. Modified tape-players were combined with Western dance and hip-hop songs recorded onto tape from the radio or smuggled records to create black-market dance music. The end results were some of the most inspiring examples of against-all-odds creative ingenuity seen since Daphne Oram and co. first tape-spliced.

The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone (Part Two)

This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

Last week we looked at a curious fire-powered organ invented by Strasbourg’s Fréderic Kastner in 1873. For part one of The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone click here.

Pyrophone, 1869. (Science Museum, London)

The instrument wasn’t a great success, but Kastner’s family connections brought it a certain amount of acknowledgement.  While he “was not a distinguished physicist …he had a rich and influential mother who, it has been said, encouraged him in the development of the pyrophone in order to provide him with an occupation that would keep him out of mischief”. Amongst Mme Kastner’s acquaintances was Henry Dunant, the Swiss social activist who had founded the Red Cross, inspired the Geneva Convention and who would later become the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. While down on his luck in the mid-1870s, Dunant accepted a 50,000 Franc commission from Kastner’s mother to take the pyrophone abroad and use his eloquence, persuasive skills and social connections to promote the instrument. Dunant managed to secure the chance to demonstrate the pyrophone at the Royal Society of Arts on the 17th of February 1875, where he demonstrated the instrument with Lack’s God Save the Queen after introducing it with a flowery speech:  “The sound of the pyrophone may truly be said to resemble the sound of the human voice… like a human and impassioned whisper, as an eco of the inward vibration of the soul, something mysterious and indefinable, besides, in general, possessing a character of melancholy, which seems characteristic of all natural harmonies”.

Bronze medal to commemorate J. H. Dunant (front) 1908-1920 (Science Museum, London)

 

Even with Dunant’s help the pyrophone was not a great success, and the promotional tour soon faltered. The instrument itself had also started malfunctioning and so Dunant donated it to South Kensington Museum, the original incarnation of the Science Museum. Dunant moved on to other projects and Kastner sadly died an early death in 1882. Since then the pyrophone has grown in fame a small amount and has even been exhibited and played occasionally. However, in recent years the original instrument has simply been sitting in the Science Museum’s stores, patiently awaiting its chance for a shot at the Christmas Number One. Occasional attempts to recreate or redsign the pyrophone and similar “fire organs” have been made, but none of them quite match the elegance of Kastner’s petite slice of 19th Century insanity. Peckham’s Experiment 1 have made some interesting artworks using similar ideas.

And what’s more they have even provided some good sound and video files, so you can even hear Monsieur Kastner’s instrument in action! Sort of.