The Tale of the Big Computer

by Anna Lundh

From 1966 Stockholm to 2011 New York City and into possible futures: a vision and an investigation.

“The Tale of the Big Computer” was commissioned by Triple Canopy through its 2010 call for proposals for the Research Work project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.


The corpse cannot be found. Every bit of evidence is critical. The room where my investigation is taking place is filled with boxes; folders are stacked on top of an imitation-wood desk; the walls are covered with documents and photographs. In the center of the main wall hangs a plastic sleeve with a novel inside. Just to inspect the cover—its color scheme (watercolor shades of yellow and green on blue), graphics (circles resembling planets and a magnetic tape reel), typography (“commercial script”)—the book is clearly several decades old. The title, Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen, en Vision av Olof Johannesson, confirms this observation; the Swedish word datamaskin, “data machine,” now rings obsolete. In English, the title is: The Tale of the Big Computer: A Vision by Olof Johannesson.

code name

The Swedish publishing house Bonniers released Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen in the late fall of 1966, and the name Olof Johannesson was immediately suspected of being a pseudonym. One critic speculated that the author, who had mastered such a wide range of science and history and who treated his topics with such impeccable logic, must himself have been generated in a computer lab. Only a few weeks after the book’s release, the mystery was solved: “Olof Johannesson” concealed the identity of Hannes Alfvén.

Left: Inger Alfvén, 2005. Right: Inger; her son, Gabriel; and Hannes Alfvén, 1967.

Alfvén, in 1970 the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, was already well known in Sweden for his work on plasma physics and cosmology, and for his activism in the disarmament movement and his criticism of Sweden’s energy policy. Rumor had it that the publisher had leaked his name to create buzz around the novel. Indeed, the book—an unusual and intriguing treatment of the mythical “data machines,” refrigerator-size punch-card-fed calculators that occupied entire laboratory rooms—was an instant success.

Alfvén had never written science fiction, which was on the fringes of Swedish literature, among the few successful examples being Harry Martinson’s epic poem Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space, from 1956. (The poem, set in a spaceship that shuttles eight thousand humans at a time from a destroyed Earth to Mars but that has been thrown off course and is drifting into the unknown, is an allegory of humanity’s inability to cope with death and the notion of eternity.) And although Alfvén had read sci-fi by foreign writers such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, he was skeptical of the way they switched carelessly between science fiction and science, making it difficult for readers to distinguish one from the other. By letting Olof Johannesson tell the story, Alfvén kept his novel suitably separate from his scientific writings.


The idea to write a novel had actually not been Hannes Alfvén’s. It was his daughter, Inger Alfvén—herself a writer—who had asked her father to compose a fairy tale for her five-year-old son, Gabriel, who was tired of Winnie the Pooh. (If A. A. Milne could write a book for his son, Christopher Robin, why couldn’t Hannes for his grandson?) Hannes immediately had an idea and jumped to the task. But the first draft he showed Inger was useless. The topic he had chosen was better suited for adults than children, and the dialogue was scientific and flat. Worse, the characters discussing the future of society were two male engineers and a woman with red lips and an unspecified profession. Inger alerted Hannes to these problems and suggested that he reconsider the entire format, tell his story from a different angle. Hannes agreed with her criticism. He soon settled on the idea of telling his future vision as a retrospection from the future—a structure borrowed from an old failed German novel he remembered—and everything fell into place. The novel was completed in a few short summer months.


It was in the very distant past that the first computer appeared, and with it dawned a new era of which the main events form the subject of this account. Despite one appalling disaster, this period of history is dominated by a fantastic evolution which transformed the primitive pre-computer communities and welded them into the perfectly integrated and organized society of today.

The future historian begins in the past, with the formation of Earth and the origin of life. Biological evolution is here a mere detour through the human race, necessary to construct the first computer.

Our poets, especially those commonly called mystics, tend to regard the period immediately succeeding the formation of the Earth as a mighty effort on the part of nature to engender computers directly, without the help of any intermediary. They are alluding to the geological processes which crystallized out many of the substances of which a data machine consists. But the task of bringing forth computers from sterile soil proved too difficult. The tectonic forces which created mountains and differentiated minerals could not produce anything as subtle and complex as a computer. For this a lengthy, troublesome detour was required, and the greatest of all tasks had to be completed step by step.

The chronicler describes how early computers facilitated mathematical calculations that gradually led to the automation of all areas of society. First came inventions such as the Teletotal, a combination of “automatic telephone,” radio, and TV. Then came the Minitotal, worn as a wristwatch and in constant radio contact with the Central Computer, where all information was stored. Finally came the Neurototal, a tiny unit inserted surgically into a nerve channel, enabling direct contact between the nervous system and the computer system, intimately connecting everybody to one another and to the all-encompassing computer network.

For a time, all seemed to be functioning well, as most societal functions were now run by computers. However, the power struggles of human bureaucrats did not decrease. Human brain capacity was insufficient to analyze and organize the complex and rapidly progressing society. Additionally, there was always the imminent risk of human error: An imperceptible mistake could cause a devastating chain reaction. And this was exactly what happened.

Suddenly, there was a blackout, all at once, worldwide. The computers lost their power supply, and society became paralyzed. Nobody knew how infrastructure functioned—for food, water, electricity; everything was beyond human control. Most people died in this great disaster (though nature got a respite from exploitation).

The few who survived had to start again from scratch. By finding clues in archives and museums, they were able to re-create society’s entire cultural development. But they saw that safeguarding against similar disasters was an absolute necessity. The safest thing would be to not involve people in the most important functions of society.

The computers gained the ability to repair and replicate themselves, and eventually they solved all society’s problems in the most logical manner. The book ends in the narrator’s present time. Supercomputers are busy analyzing whether or not humans should be retained—for nostalgic reasons, or as a back-up in the event of another disaster. If it was not obvious before, it is now: The narrator “himself” is a computer.


What will the computers make of us? Will we become less and less important to them as they develop—and we remain as we are, bound in biological chains, the slaves of destructive drives?… Considering the dissatisfactions of biological existence, not to mention its incompatibility to many environments, would it not be better to pass on the gift of consciousness to those so much better suited to its possession?1
1 Harvey Gardner, “Is Man Necessary?” (review of The Tale of the Big Computer), New York Times, March 3, 1968.

The tale is told undramatically, innocently, logically, in a style “as impersonal as an annual report of a corporation,” as one critic put it. The future computer establishes facts and makes hypotheses but is often unable to comprehend the rationale behind certain aspects of human society, activities, and habits. The course of events represents a great risk to the future of mankind, but at the same time reveals humanity’s shortcomings. The book, in turn, avoids taking any clear position for or against technology, treating it as a natural result of evolution; it is neither a utopian nor a dystopian position—or it occupies both positions at once.

Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen was written at the very cusp of the computer age, but today’s perspective has shifted slightly, to that of a society already immersed in computer technology (a dependence that may obscure some of the technology’s implications). Though Alfvén’s story of humanity’s evolution, his ambivalence about technology, and his suspicion of politicians and bureaucrats are firmly rooted in 1960s Sweden, his tale has grown to encompass our 2011 present, exposing it from two directions. Alfvén’s future vision looks back past us but also stretches far beyond us, into the reaches of possibility. The borders between the past, the present, and the future are blurred and overlapping: a cross-contamination of time.


More evidence. The blue book in the plastic sleeve has been transposed with a brown book, constellated with stars and numbers. This book, entitled The Great Computer: A Vision, is the 1968 British edition of the Swedish original. To the right hangs a photocopy of its inside flap, with certain sentences highlighted in neon yellow: “So successful has the book been in Sweden that Professor Alfvén has lost his anonymity completely. This witty and sardonic comment upon our world is now being adapted in Sweden as an opera.”

When was this opera made, and why had I never heard about it? Google had absolutely nothing. At the Music and Theatre Library of Sweden, I found an article in a 1972 issue of the Musical Quarterly, about the Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl, that mentioned a “computer opera.” In 1959, Blomdahl had premiered an opera based on Harry Martinson’s epic sci-fi poem Aniara, in which one of the leading roles was sung by the operator of the ingenious instrument Mima (a sort of mechanical brain and the soul of the spaceship), to an imaginative and energetic score that included musique concrête and even some electronic sounds. The opera was a huge success and left behind many recordings and much documentation. With the name of Blomdahl, I had my first lead. But with his Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen, unlike his Aniara, the body seemed to have vanished.

“top secret”

At the time of Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen's publication, Karl-Birger Blomdahl was being treated for a heart attack at a hospital in Stockholm. Blomdahl most likely read the book while still in the hospital, because shortly after his return home, he wrote to Hannes Alfvén, telling him that he had become so “ignited” by this vision of the future that he wanted to give it a “musical-scenographic-dramatic” form:

It offers, as far as I can tell, an enormous potential for a new “sound art” (working with both traditional and electronic media), musically as well as linguistically, not to mention the visual possibilities!

Alfvén was skeptical about portraying the future in theatrical form, but Blomdahl convinced the physicist that the opera would be sufficiently abstract and stylized. Alfvén agreed to participate, on the condition that he write the libretto in collaboration with his daughter, Inger. Next, Blomdahl invited the artist Per Olof Ultvedt to design the sets. Ultvedt was famous for his participation in the 1961 exhibition “Motion in Art,” at Moderna Museet, and for having created the sculpture HON (SHE), together with Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, at Moderna in the summer of 1966.2 HON was a giant female “cathedral” that could be entered between her legs; she housed an exhibition of fake masterpieces, a cocktail bar, a movie theater, and a planetarium.

2 ”Motion in Art,” curated by Pontus Hultén, is a starting point of the 1960s symbiosis of art and technology. The exhibition included artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder, Viking Eggeling, Marcel Duchamp, and Öyvind Fahlström.

In a letter dated May 10, 1967, Blomdahl excitedly presented his ideas to the Royal Opera’s director, Göran Gentele. Only two days later, the following memo was written by Gentele’s secretary:

Here is a “top secret” that the Opera’s director wants to include in the next board meeting (June 19?):

“New opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen, with libretto by professor Hannes Alfvén. Premiering at the Royal Opera, season 1969–70. Commissioned.”


On September 14, 1967, a press conference was held. Blomdahl had insisted it take place at the Royal Institute of Technology, in the Department of Plasma Physics. He and Alfvén presented nothing of the opera. (There was nothing of the opera to present, which didn’t bother Blomdahl in the least.) Rather, they talked unsentimentally about how, in the future, computers will relieve people from chores and eventually from thinking. Blomdahl proclaimed that he “would be pleased to be replaced by a supercomputer.”

Blomdahl planned to create the opera’s music and sound in the soon-to-be completed Electronic Music Studio, funded by Radio Sweden, where he was music director. The opera’s audio would rely heavily on tape recorders, which would be controlled, in part, by cosmic radiation, producing a different result each night. Some of the intended stage experiments were yet to be proved feasible, but to use opera as a springboard to explore such scientific frontiers seemed to please Alfvén, and Blomdahl thought doing so was even “necessary.”

The press was eager to report on this novelty. An article in Dagens Nyheter, “Secret Book of Atomic Professor Makes the Opera Dust Swirl,” triumphantly uses the project as proof that opera is not yet outmoded. (“Is opera as dusty as they say?” Royal Opera director Göran Gentele is asked. “No, we work with computers!” he responds.) In another article, Gentele announces that Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen has been invited to have its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The foreign press was interested as well. In his article “Swede Is Writing Man’s Last Song,” New York Times correspondent Werner Wiskari refers to Blomdahl and Alfvén as if they were household names, not obscure Scandinavians. Blomdahl shares his plans to use between 50 and 60 percent electronic and concrete music, and says that the result is meant to “assault” both ears and eyes. There would be sounds symbolizing the passage of time from Earth’s formation up to the introduction of punch-card computers. “Cultural diseases” such as stress and nervous breakdowns would be illustrated by audio recordings of heartbeats from people with cardiac disease (Blomdahl among them) and brainwaves from patients at a neurology clinic. There would be no arias; a large choir would instead sing words and phrases drawn from scientific and technological idioms, accompanied by music constructed according to molecular structures. “There will be no love, hate, good, hell, etc.,” Blomdahl declares. “They are out.”


The Electronic Music Studio was still under construction, and so rather than composing, Blomdahl devoted himself to planning the opera and gathering source material, in collaboration with various scientists. Alfvén introduced Blomdahl to the Royal Institute of Technology’s speech lab, where Gunnar Fant was commissioned to produce a synthetic voice-over. The voice had to sound futuristic, unreal, and unengaged, as if it belonged to a “being” that could express all possible knowledge. A technician at Radio Sweden, Karl-Otto Valentin, was tasked with devising a playback system for the prerecorded sounds. Ludwik Liszka, at the Kiruna Geophysical Observatory, was commissioned to record magnetic storms and cosmic noise. Hans Gyllang, a microbiologist, was also hired for consultation.

Inger and Hannes Alfvén had begun working on the libretto, but it was still unclear how abstract sounds would convey the story. The synthetic computer voice was to be the only “soloist”; the opera would not follow any single character’s story. The interactions of the choir, ballet, orchestra, and electronic and concrete sounds would convey what was happening. Inger insisted there be a comprehensive story line, suggesting that the opera begin chronologically, with gas clouds, the formation of the solar system, and Earth’s birth. The first draft was written and given to Blomdahl. Ultvedt made a handful of drawings for the decor and set design. Months went by, and everyone awaited Blomdahl’s further instructions.


By the summer of 1968, Blomdahl was finally finished with the preparatory work, and he called up Hannes Alfvén to announce that he was ready to start composing. That same evening, he said to his wife: “Next week, I begin the work, and in two months, the opera will be … but … what is happening to me?” It was Friday, July 14, 1968, and Blomdahl had suffered another heart attack. This time, it was fatal.

Blomdahl’s death made worldwide news. Only three months before, Harvey Gardner, the author of the New York Times review of Alfvén’s novel, had been reprimanded by the Sweden expert Werner Wiskari for not knowing Olof Johannesson’s real identity. Wiskari’s letter mentions the opera, which probably led the Times obituary writer to include “The Saga of the Super Computer” as the composer’s unfinished “second space opera.” In Sweden, however, the opera wasn’t mentioned in obituaries, probably because it had been announced the year before and no new developments had been revealed since. The opera project died with Blomdahl, and soon it was forgotten.


On the adjacent wall, four-by-five-inch photographs are pinned up in a cloud-shaped chart. The photographs are mostly of people, but also of significant sites. Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s photograph is at the center, surrounded by those of the inner circle, including Hannes Alfvén, Inger Alfvén, Per Olof Ultvedt, and Göran Gentele. Blomdahl now embodies the double role of victim—he died prematurely and was robbed of the ability to finish his greatest work—and suspect: He may have murdered the opera.


The remaining evidentiary fragments have been gathered and examined. Only a few sound recordings were made by Blomdahl, including experiments with crystal glasses and electronic noise: raw material for the composition. Ultvedt labeled his drawings of the sets (for example, a “computer cathedral” and a “computer service station”) “visual annotations,” which suggests that the designs were not yet finished. The Alfvéns’ libretto work is outlined on a large sheet of paper, categorized in four columns: KEYWORDS, MUSIC, IMAGE, and OLOF JOHANNESSON (the computer-voiced narrator). The draft describes the story line in broad strokes, but also includes a few specific details, such as the characteristics of the synthetic voice to be designed by Gunnar Fant: “futuristic,” “unreal,” “unengaged.” The keywords indicate some elements of the story but mostly function as lyrics for the choir to chant.

Selected libretto keywords:

gravitation, attraction, accelerate,
plasma, magnetism, ions, electrons,
energy, cosmic static, oxidize, reduce, hydrate, dehydrate, activate, polymerize, replicate, instruct, inform, synthesize, connect, direct, control, pulse,
discriminate, solution, clear, data, write, program, digitalize, add, multiply, store, smaller, faster, safer, efficient, input, output, memory, control unit, calculating unit, problem analysis, flow chart, encoding, educational computer, Teletotal, justice computer, health factories, government machine, rationalize, supercomputer, computer-controlled computer maintenance, self-reproducing computer, leisure paradise, power

A list of sounds that Blomdahl had compiled is included in the MUSIC column of the libretto draft; he called the list “Löpande Bandet” (The Conveyor Belt). (The title is a pun—the topic coincides with the technology that was to convey it; band is Swedish for “tape.”) The sounds, meant to reflect the evolution of culture and technology, were to gradually overcome the orchestral music. The list includes noises such as “sword against shield, water boiling, meat frying, steam engine, a falling guillotine, subway, a radio being squeaky and noisy, the first voice of a sputnik, washing machine, dishwasher, A-bomb explosions.” Some have become obsolete (how does a “radio telegraph” sound?), and others might be difficult to interpret accurately (how can one separate a “falling guillotine” from an ordinary metallic swoosh?). The sonic descriptions may in fact work better as descriptions, with the sounds playing only in the mind’s ear.

If Blomdahl hadn’t died so suddently, and had realized his dream project, would the result have lived up to the potential and the murderous hype? It’s a rather idealistic and even paradoxical endeavor: to create an opera about future technology, using technology that inevitably belongs to the present. Would we be capable of evaluating a work of art authored by machines, for machines? Perhaps the unfinished work—with its characteristics in flux depending on the time from which they’re considered—is more fit for the future than the completed one could ever have been.

“the stockholm thing”

In investigating the historical intersection of art, technology, and collaboration, one inevitably happens on another Swede, Billy Klüver, an engineer who worked at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey from 1957 to 1968. In the early ’60s, he began collaborating with artists such as Jean Tinguely, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg and was an important connection between the New York and Swedish art scenes. Klüver’s most famous project is “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” for which engineers and artists like Fahlström, Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Yvonne Rainer collaborated on a number of performances that took place at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York in 1966. Attendance exceeded all expectations, with fifteen hundred people coming each night to see an audio-amplified tennis game, complex dance performances directed via FM receivers, sound pieces based on amplified brainwave and muscle activity, and remote-controlled flying missiles. The reception was a mix of astonishment and confusion. One New York Times critic called it a “depressing spectacle,” referring mostly to some technical problems and delays in Rauschenberg’s performance. But “9 Evenings” led to the establishment of the organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) by Klüver, Rauschenberg, and others, and it has since become a cult art-historical phenomenon.

Less remembered is that “9 Evenings” was supposed to have taken place in Stockholm and been called the Stockholm Festival for Art and Technology. The initiative was the idea of Knut Wiggen, the director of Fylkingen, an institution for electroacoustic music. Wiggen had involved Klüver, who in turn had invited Bell Labs engineers and New York artists. Large sums of money were raised, both in Sweden and in the United States. By the summer of 1966—as reported in an article by Fahlström, who was exhibiting at the Venice Biennale at the time—people everywhere were talking about “the Stockholm thing.” “New values are being created as a consequence of the rapid progress of technology,” wrote a reporter covering the festival. “Can humans be reeducated to get along with technology in a different and more positive way? The plan is to combine technical and artistic expressions to treat this problem, and see what happens.”

But after a conflict between Wiggen and Klüver, blamed on money issues and technical restrictions (but, more accurately, a consequence of irreconcilable differences in attitude and intentions), the collaboration broke down. The festival took place under the name “Visioner av Nuet” (Visions of the Now), without the Americans, in September 1966, and, consequently, consisted mostly of lectures and discussions; art and musical performances representing a much smaller part of the program than originally planned. Nam June Paik showed a Robot, as well as a large television piece, and Alvin Lucier attempted to control brainwave signals to create sounds in his Music for Solo Performer. Composer Iannis Xenakis and architect Yona Friedman were among the speakers, and topics ranged from “The Electronic Image” to “Technique of Living in the Future Society.” The most talked-about Swedish contribution was an audiovisual work called Altisonans, by Karl-Birger Blomdahl, who had been involved with the festival since the beginning. When Blomdahl read Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen in the hospital a few weeks later, he must have had these “visions of the now” on his mind.


In late October 2009, I am in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, visiting Billy Klüver’s widow, Julie Martin, who also worked with “9 Evenings” and E.A.T. (and as a producer of many projects together with Klüver and artists like Robert Whitman). I tell her about the opera project, and a few seconds later she pulls Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen, the original Swedish novel, from a bookshelf. To my surprise, it is inscribed with a dedication from Hannes Alfvén to Klüver, thanking him for his thesis project. Alfvén had been Klüver’s professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm in the 1950s and had supervised Klüver’s thesis, Motion of Electrons in Electric and Magnetic Fields, an educational animation made using Walt Disney’s hand-drawn cel method. Though it had been completed in 1954, Alfvén remembered it twelve years later. “How many engineering students made a film for their thesis?” Martin says.

According to Martin, Klüver was influenced by Alfvén and loved Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen. “I think it’s probably very prescient,” she says. “I think our society, or the ones that are coming, you’re going to know less about them than you know about the Egyptians. Because everything is going to be linked, and then there will be some huge power outage, worldwide …” She speculates that if “9 Evenings” had happened in Stockholm as planned, Klüver and Blomdahl would have met, and Klüver would have reconnected with Hannes Alfvén. Perhaps Blomdahl would have involved Klüver in the opera project as well.

This unrealized opera—this vision of a vision—is made up of such conjectures: people and ideas flowing between Stockholm and New York, between past, present, and future, via art, electronic music, opera, science, and technology. Whereas if Blomdahl had lived, and finished the opera, it would have become a static work—pinned to the wall and tagged “Stockholm, ca. 1969.” Perhaps, then, Blomdahl should not be considered a victim or a suspect; and his death, however unfortunate, should be redefined as a subversive act, which ensured that The Tale of the Big Computer would exist beyond any single place or time.

The corpse never existed. But it walks among us nevertheless: now a vision in progress.