The fictional HAL-9000's singing of 'Daisy Bell' at his death was an homage to the earliest singing computer.


Why did HAL sing ‘Daisy’?

9 Nov , 2009 by

Okay, so this may not be important breaking news about astronomy, but it may answer a burning question posed by most people who have watched  or read “2001: A Space Odyssey”: that is, why does the computer HAL-9000 sing the song ‘Daisy Bell’ as the astronaut Dave Bowman takes him apart? Well, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke made HAL’s final act in the world this song as a tribute to HAL’s great ancestor, the first IBM computer to ever sing. Click below for more on this geeky topic!

In 1962 Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the novel – and co-wrote the screenplay for the movie – “2001: A Space Odyssey”, visited Bell Labs before putting the finishing touches on the work. There, he was treated to a performance of the song ‘Daisy Bell’ (or, ‘A Bicycle Built for Two’) by the IBM 704 computer. This evidently inspired him to have HAL sing the song as an homage to the programmers of the 704 at Bell Labs, John L. Kelly, Carol Lockbaum, and Max Mathews. Kelly and Lockbaum programmed the lyrics, and Mathews the accompaniment.

Daisy Bell‘ was originally composed in 1892 by Henry Dacre, and English composer. Upon coming to the U.S., he was charged a duty fee for his bicycle. A friend remarked that it was lucky that he didn’t bring a bicycle built for two, or he would have had to pay double duty. Taken by the phrase, he used in in a song to acclaim both before it became a smash hit with computers with a penchant for song, and after.

Here’s a recording of the 704 talking and singing the song. If you want to sing along karaoke style to the original singer, here’s a video of the 704 doing its ditty (ignore the different model name and year – the 7094 exists but can’t even sing backup):

And, of course, here is HAL-9000 in his death throes with a more maniacal version of the classic:

Source: Switched, MOG, Bell Labs

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I started writing for Universe Today in September 2007, and have loved every second of it since! Astronomy and science are fascinating for me to learn and write about, and it makes me happy to share my passion for science with others. In addition to the science writing, I'm a full-time bicycle mechanic and the two balance nicely, as I get to work with my hands for part of the day, and my head the other part (some of the topics are a stretch for me to wrap my head around, too!).

4 Responses

  1. Jon Hanford says:

    Was it Clarke or Kubrick that came up with the HAL(=IBM) moniker ?

  2. My understanding is that Clarke actually meant HAL to mean Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic Computer, and that the HAL = IBM is just a coincidence.

  3. Jon Hanford says:

    Interesting theory, but H-I, A-B, L-M just seems so natural. But, naturally, Clarke was open to many interpretations.

  4. Paul Eaton-Jones says:

    Rather poignant. The advances in synthesising music were staggering when you consider the comment by the scientist that making music on a synth was almost as formidible as synthesising speech. To think just a couple or so years later The Pink Floyd and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were using synths on a regular basis to create music.

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