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I have a Web Page that outlines the history of the Burroughs Datatron 205. Please visit that page and return here for any comments.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bertha Preserves the Datatron

Shortly after Burroughs acquired ElectroData Corporation in 1956, Burroughs employees Douglas Bolitho and Martin Klein hit on a public relations strategy that will preserve the Datatron name long into the future.

Using well established mathematical rules of music composition, they developed an automated music composition program for the Datatron. Burroughs took one of the resulting compositions, hired popular composer Jack Owens to write lyrics for it and created Push Button Bertha.


(Click to enlarge)
The result was a program and song cited to this day in PhD dissertations, foot-noted in books on electronic music and preserved for posterity.

I realized the significance of this composition when I was contacted in January by Dr. Lutz Neitzert who was preparing a short radio broadcast incorporating the history of "Push Button Bertha."

And did I say "preserved for posterity?" Well, yes!. The Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota contains a copy of the Datatron program that was written by Bolitho and Klein. I am currently building a Datatron emulator in Java. (I've had a previously completed version of the emulator running in Visual Basic but want to make it easier to distribute.) I had thought that the ultimate proof of emulation was to run the Algol 58 compiler. I now realize that I will have to add the music composition program to my test bed.

For readers with sharp eyes and a good imagination, there is a barely visible copy of the Push Button Bertha score at this site.

2 comments:

Daniel Ferreira said...

Hi, great post!

Two questions about Push Button Bertha:
1) Do you know were I can hear the original recording aired in 1956? If not, do you know of any other recording?

2) What is the source of the hi-res jpg you have from the sheet music?

Thanks!

T J Sawyer said...

I am unaware of any recording that may exist of "Bertha." Here is a blog post by Roger Owens, son of the lyricist Jack Owens who wrote the words. He says that "In less than one week after Owens’ lyrics were set to the music, there were five copies of the recording already on the market."

So there may be recordings out there someplace in a Los Angeles garage or attic!

The one good copy of the sheet music that I know of resides in the Burroughs archives at the University of Minnesota's Charles Babbage Institute(CBI). See this finding aid.

If you ever locate a recorded copy of the music, it would be a great addition to either CBI or one of the computer museums with a Datatron.