A few years ago, I was in Utrecht for a project meeting, and I’ve seen signs of a “Museum Speelklok” (see its official web site in English). Even though I was curious about it, I didn’t have much time and had to head back to Belgium. Fast forward a few years: few weeks ago, April, 2016, we planned a short trip to the Netherlands, and Utrecht was part of the plan. So I said to my 4-year-old: Time to explore kiddo!
It turned out to be a very good decision. The museum is located in a historical part of the city, and its building is a beautiful, old church. From the moment you step inside, you start a time travel full of musical curiosities. The musical clocks that gave their name to the museum is only a part of the story. For us, the most interesting part was musical automata, not only because they came in all shapes, sizes, and models, but also because their connection to… yes, you guessed it, computing: Encoding musical information to be played automatically on instruments is an old idea, which, in turn, was used for weaving machines. Those ideas were made popular by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, known for Jacquard loom. Soon after, Herman Hollerith invented his machines that used punched cards for the American census of 1890 (and this led TMC, later know as IBM. The rest is history. For more information, please read “From Carillon to IBM – The musical roots of information technology“).
On the second floor, a surprise was awaiting us: There were some tables on which we could take some cards, put a punched plastic plate, place it on the card, mark the holes on the card with a pencil, and then use a perforator to punch the cards, creating the holes. Then we were able to place the card in a musical automaton and start turning slowly, listening to the melody that we punched into the card. There were a few different plastic templates, each containing a part of some popular musical piece. I picked one of them that had a title of an opera from Puccini. It took us some minutes marking the paper, and then punching the holes. Listening to our encoded music was a strange experience that made me the correctness of the plastic template, as well as my memory of Puccini operas; or maybe we were not simply not precise enough when marking the hole locations. After a few very concentrated minutes with my son, it also made me think about the programmers of forgotten past: “punching your computer code into card is no joke! Especially when the results do not sound like music to your ears because of bugs.”
We continued to explore the remaining musical automaton and finished our tour with some refreshments at the museum cafeteria. They had a piano in the corner, and another kid was curious about it. The guy running the cafeteria came along in a typical Dutch manner, making jokes and said the piano would play itself, of course. After all, this was a museum of musical clocks and musical automaton. He touched a switch on an instrument connected to the piano, and we started to watch the keys on the piano moving by themselves, playing a jazz tune. We left the museum, my 4-year-old son playing with a musical toy, and I, thinking about the theoretical possibility of encoding our thoughts and memories, on a punch card, or in the form of a connectome.