CDP engineer creates a remarkable musical instrument

Jonathan Morris, Mechanical engineer, explains how he came to design and build a most unusual musical instrument at CDP

Q. CDP doesn’t usually make musical instruments, does it?
Jonathan: No! This is definitely one of our more unexpected projects here at Cambridge Design Partnership. But when composer Robert Laidlow approached us with a project celebrating computing and Artificial Intelligence, it was clear that engineering and design could help him create an entirely new musical instrument.

Q. Sounds intriguing, tell us more…
Jonathan: We have built ‘The Lovelace Engine’, a mechanical musical instrument inspired by the work of Ada Lovelace, who studied the earliest computers back in the 1830s and 40s. Lovelace was a pioneering computer scientist, and one of the first to realise the potential of computing to perform ever more complex tasks.

Q. The machine looks stunning – how does it work?
Jonathan: Essentially it is a mechanical engine that can make a variety of percussion rhythms, controlled by a single shaft turned by a crank handle. It was constructed here at CDP using our rapid prototyping capabilities, with many parts being 3D printed.

Q. What sort of music will be played on The Lovelace Engine?
Jonathan: It’s a major new work and part of a concert that is a tribute to Ada Lovelace at the Barbican in London this autumn, led by Professor Emily Howard, director of PRiSM at the Royal Northern College of Music. The engine will be played during an exciting new piece commissioned for the performance called Alter. The music will performed by musicians from the Britten Sinfonia with text written entirely by Artificial Intelligence.

Q. So is this instrument a replica of the first computers that Lovelace worked on?
Jonathan: It’s very much inspired by them and draws inspiration from the mechanical technology available to Lovelace in the 1800s – there’s no electricity or circuit boards involved. But this is a musical instrument, not a computer, so it is a tribute to Lovelace rather than a copy of the computers she worked with.

Q. Was it difficult to make?
Jonathan:  It has been a unique challenge as we wanted the engine to be configurable, as Lovelace envisaged, so that it can change rhythm mid-performance. It’s been really interesting as a mechanical engineer to work on such an artistic, creative project.

Q. Not your everyday work at CDP then?
Jonathan: I’m in my first graduate job here at CDP and the variety of what we get up to here is fantastic. I am mostly working on medical devices and consumer products as well as designing experiments and test rigs. No two days are the same but, yes, a musical instrument is probably a one-off for us right now! I can’t wait to see it being played on stage.

The Lovelace Engine will be played at the Barbican on November 2 as part of “Ada Lovelace: Imagining the Analytical Engine”.

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Jonathan Morris

Associate Mechanical Engineer