The Surprisingly Awesome Sound of 156 Office Machines From the '60s

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A 156-second symphony honoring the sounds of the mid-century workplace.

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The modern machine aims to be silent. The MacBook Air, eschewing the noisy optical and hard drives of yore, is a perfect example: It whispers through nearly all work. The quiet indicates the quality of the computer; it doesn't *need* some big noisy fan. 

But go back to the office of the 1960s and you'd hear a symphony of mechanical noises: metal hitting metal at various rhythms and speeds. Playing with the cacophony of the age, Swiss composer Rolf Liebermann composed a short song for 156 machines in honor of his country's National Exposition in 1964. 

According to UbuWeb, which hosts the original, the machines include: "16 typewriters, 18 calculator machines, 8 accounting machines, 12 office perforators, 10 caisses enregistreuses, 8 humidificateurs-colleurs, 8 tele-scripteurs, 2 metronomes, 4 bells of signalisation, 2 entrance door gongs, 10 claxons, 16 telephones, 40 experimental signal receptors,1 fork lift, a duplicator and a monte-charge."

I'll be honest: I'm not even sure what several of those machines are, but dang, do they sound good together. This is a fantastic little piece of music made from the sonic detritus of a pre-digital workplace. 

And here, we can see what it takes to reproduce a similar sound with real live people playing the role of the machines.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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