Ada and the music machine

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

A man playing a barrel organ with a soft toy monkey.
Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Charles Babbage found barrel organs so incredibly irritating that he waged a campaign to clear them from the streets, even trying to organise an act of parliament to have them banned. Presumably, it wasn’t the machine Babbage hated but the irritating noise preventing him from concentrating: the buskers in the streets outside his house constantly playing music was the equivalent to listening to next door’s music through the walls. His hatred, however, may have led to Ada Lovelace’s greatest idea.

It seems rather ironic his ire was directed at the barrel organ as they share a crucial component with his idea for a general purpose computer – a program. Anyone (even monkeys) can be organ grinders, and so play the instrument, because they are just the power source, turning the crank to wind the barrel. Babbage’s first calculating machine, the Difference Engine was similarly powered by cranking a handle.

The barrel itself is like a program. Pins sticking out from the barrel encode the series of notes to be played. These push levers up and down, which in turn switch valves on and off, allowing air from bellows into the different pipes that make the sounds. As such it is a binary system of switches with pins and no pins round the barrel giving instructions meaning on or off for the notes. Swap the barrel with one with pins in different positions and you play different music, just as changing the program in a computer changes what it does.

Babbage’s hate of these music machines potentially puts a different twist on Ada Lovelace’s most visionary idea. Babbage saw his machines as ways to do important calculations with great accuracy, such as for working out the navigation tables ships needed to travel the world. Lovelace, by contrast, suggested that they could do much more and specifically that one day they would be able to compose music. The idea is perhaps her most significant, and certainly a prediction that came true.

We can never know, but perhaps the idea arose from her teasing Babbage. She was essentially saying that his great invention would become the greatest ever music machine…the thing he detested more than anything. And it did.


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This article was funded by UKRI, through Professor Ursula Martin’s grant EP/K040251/2 and grant EP/W033615/1.

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