This has been a busy month for International Business Machines. In the early part of the month, Big Blue announced from Paris, France, that the grand pipe organ of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is being modernized -- computerized, if you please -- to "revitalize the rich sounds of this centuries-old instrument."
IBM spokesmen went on to say that "the new wrinkle in this old story is that by 1992, the organ's five keyboards and 7,800 pipes will be refurbished to their original condition, and a special IBM Personal System/2 computer system will be installed with funding from the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs." The computer system will allow organists to automate -- for the first time -- knobs called "stops," which will help them to play the many tiers of keyboards called "manuals" and rows of foot pedals, according to IBM. Currently, according to IBM, "the great cathedral's master organist employs his wife and a second assistant to manually work the stops as he plays musical pieces that sometimes require heroic efforts of maneuverability." Christian Blavet, director of systems integration for IBM France, said the new computer system "is not meant to replace the skill or importance of the organists. Rather, IBM technology will help musicians play pieces more accurately on the old organ." This will be no easy feat. Master organists now must try to play a bit ahead of the written music to compensate for acoustical "traffic delays" as the sounds wend their way through a "Rube Goldberg-like" labyrinth housed inside the instrument, according to the IBM people. They explained that there is a noticeable lag from the time the organist's commands commute from manuals and foot pedals up through a console the size of a Volkswagen bus and into the huge pan-flute of pipes below a rose window. He said restoring the organ is an on-going process that incorporates a patchwork of technologies from times past. Superimposed on air-bellows and other mechanisms from the 18th and 19th centuries is an electrical system dating back to 1959, according to IBM, and in 1968, the mechanical settings that allow the organ to produce a variety of reed, percussion and brass sounds were retrofitted. IBM reported it is working with SYNAPTEL, an engineering company specializing in telecommunications, and four master organ builders on a two-year project to improve the flow and quality of sound. A second IBM computer, originally designed to withstand dust and vibrations in factories, will be used to manage the "actioners" -- valves that control the air passing through the pillar-sized pipes -- which, in turn, produce sounds. "This new IBM system will improve the reliability and precision of our organ and its sounds," said Philippe Lefebvre, organist of the Catheral of Notre Dame. "Parts of the technical solution may also be transferable to other organs. In this sense, the work we perform today may be used tomorrow to improve the sounds of other vintage instruments." Meanwhile, IBM is about to get back in the home computer market again. It tried once before -- in 1985 -- with the poorly designed PCjr and bombed out. Now it's set to come out Tuesday with four models in its PS/1 line. The computers are expected to be offered through its existing network of dealers at suggested retail prices ranging form just under $1,000 to $2,700. The PS/1 line also will be sold in department stores. Although the line hasn't officially hit the market yet, there already are critics. They claim that like the PCjr, the PS/1 machines are underpowered and complain that they use the "old" Intel microprocessors that run at only 10 megahertz, which is considerably slower than most clones that use the 80286 microprocessors. Critics also point out that the user will have to buy expansion modules to add things like a hard disk drive. The critics also note that IBM doesn't want to produce a computer that will hurt sales of its PS/2 models. That policy could be a disaster if it also fails to hurt sales of competitors, because many buyers are influenced by price rather than brand name. When you get to the bottom line, the IBM announcement concerning the cathedral of Notre Dame organ sounds better. At least for now.