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The 16th C. Roots of Computing

Hello Happy Reader,

What with the holidays and plethora of pipe organs in the Twin Cities, I hit a couple of concerts recently. The most recent was a Olivier Messiaen piece, La Nativité du Seigneur, as played by Raymond Johnson, the Director of Music at St. Mark’s Cathedral here in Minneapolis. It was dissonant, angular and altogether challenging, though I did enjoy it as an accompaniment to stained glass (not Glass, Jonah!) viewing.

Since big organs get down to the very lowest octave of our hearing, and are usually installed in a large, reverberant space, they can be lots of fun. When I heard that someone was giving a historical talk about French organs, I thought, “Way kewel,” and signed up. Extra points were awarded as the speaker is the fellow overseeing the current restoration at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. I attended Mass once at Notre Dame, and it was a transcendent experience.

Having signed up on–line, I  zipped over to Saint Paul today, to MPR’s (Minnesota Public Radio) USB Forum to grab the presentation. Organ builder Bertrand Cattiaux from Liourdres, a dapper fellow with a marvelous command of English (thank goodness as my French is abyssmal), has restored and rebuilt numerous organs, including famous instruments by the Clicquot dynasty (Poitiers Cathedral; Versailles Chapel) and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris; Saint Sernin, Toulouse).

The Clicquot organ at Cathédrale de
Saint-Pierre, Poitiers

His talk, Six Centuries of French Organ Building, included historical drawing, photographs and musical excerpts, and was lively, educational, and quite enjoyable. The discussion was a bit technical, as it was sponsored in part by the Twin Cities Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. So, lots of ivory twiddlers in the audience. An engineering geek bud and I were the exception.

According to his backgrounder, “Cattiaux was born in 1955 in Étampes, near Paris and very early on, showed a great interest in music. When he was 14, opening the back doors of the organ of Notre Dame d’Étampes, he discovered a fascinating world of pipes, wood and mechanics. He began to take organ lessons with Noellie Pierront and soon discovered his true vocation…he would become an organ builder. Having chosen Jean-Loup Boisseau as his training master, he had the opportunity to work on the great organ of Notre Dame de Paris and to meet the tenured organist, Pierre Cocherau. From 1974 to 1979, he worked as the assistant to François Carbou. Each Sunday afternoon, he would attend organ recitals given by world-renowned organists: This helped provide a solid foundation for his knowledge of organ music.”

What, you may ask, does this have to do with computers? Well, any geek worth her salt knows that early programmable computers used “punch” or Hollerith cards to store their “Holerithms” or executable instructions. Punched card were, in turn, derived from the Jacquard looms of the 19th century. Jacquard looms were the first widely used, semi–automatic (programmable to us moderns) manufacturing gizmos, and were themselves descended from the invention of a textile worker in the silk center of Lyon, Basile Bouchon. Bouchon devised “…a way to control a loom with a perforated paper tape in 1725. The son of an organ maker, Bouchon partially automated the tedious setting up process of the drawloom in which an operator lifted the warp threads using cords.”

I didn’t know about Bouchon and, more importantly, that he was the son of an organ maker, until I started writing this blog entry. What I did immediately see was the similarity of some parts of a pipe organ, shown by Cattiaux during his talk, to the programming cards employed in a Jacquard loom. Specifically, the mechanism underlying a mechanical organ’s stop is fundamentally the same as a J–loom’s punch card!

As I was watching the presentation, I thought, “Cranky, that looks and acts like a punch card!” Sure enough, Bouchon borrowed that stop mechanism; a thin, sliding flat board with holes that, when aligned with underlying holes in another piece of oak, allow the passage of air to the reeds and pipes; and adapted it to allow or prevent a peg from moving into position. Mechanical organs and simple looms have similar mechanical linkages as part of their guts, and early organs were binary in that the air was either stopped, hence the name “stop,” or flowing across a sound–producing reed.

So, Bouchon adapts the wooden version of a punch card for use in his paper tape–driven loom, Joseph Marie Jacquard refined the design with chains of punched, rigid cards, and early computers eventually used punched cards (and paper tape!) to store their programs…This micro–revelation on my part was worthy of James Burke…I think he actually did an episode on the antecedents of programmable computers, but I don’t remember any mention of organs. Anyway, thanks for staying with me through this walk down techno memory lane…it’s been fun!

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