Go back to article: Oramics to electronica: investigating lay understandings of the history of technology through a participatory project

The Daphne Oram archive

The background to the project was that in 2010 staff at the Museum set out to develop its public history research in the context of two planned gallery redevelopments, on the histories of science and of communications.[9] Electronic sound was, at that stage, proposed to feature as a section of the latter gallery. The Museum had just acquired Daphne Oram’s unique and extraordinary Oramics Machine synthesizer for its collections. We proposed that this should be the focus of our endeavour, partially because of its intriguing appearance – a perpetual prototype built on a very limited budget incorporating a mass of Dexion racking, wires, switches, strips of 35mm film and, indeed, a broom handle. Oram had been a founder of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, where she was one of a small number of significant women within this experimental department. Here composers and engineers worked together with often ground-breaking results, to create sound effects, jingles and soundtracks for radio and television shows, perhaps most famously for the science fiction series Doctor Who (Niebur, 2010). The Oramics Machine was the fruit of Oram’s determination to create a device that would translate drawings into sound, a pursuit that had led her to leave the BBC in 1958 and set up her own music studio.

Audio 1

An audio sample of the Oramics Machine, courtesy of the Daphne Oram Trust.

As the machine had been acquired with the collaboration of the Oram Archive and its curator Mick Grierson (Grierson and Boon, 2012, pp 186–7), it was natural to work with the team there. Our original wish had been to ‘grow’ the exhibition on gallery, with several successive developments as new narrative points of view were added. Practicalities resulting from the very active schedule of the Museum’s design and workshop departments meant that there were, in the end, only two phases. The first, opened in July, presented the machine, along with a single display case on tape music technique, a computer information point written by Oram Archive associate Chris Weaver, a gallery version of the iPhone Oramics App developed by Parag Mital and Mick Grierson, and a series of archive photographs of Oram. This version was very much a product of the collaboration with the Goldsmiths team; apart from reference to Louis Niebur’s (2010) then new book on the history of the Radiophonic Workshop, Goldsmiths was the prime source of the account. In this sense, it was co-created with them.

Figure 1

Close up of the Oramics Machine app screen showing strips of acetate and drawn lines as they appear on the machine itself

The Oramics Machine app on display at the Oramics exhibition. The app allows the user to recreate the unique sound of the machine.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140206/003