The Aesthetics of Early Computing- Object 1

by scholastress

This computer's aesthetics are fascist (spoilers)

The IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (aka Harvard Mark I)

The ASCC’s debut in 1945 was something of an event. Norman Bel Geddes, a theatrical and industrial designer made famous by his 1939 Futurama exhibition at the New York World’s Fair, oversaw the design (or at least his company did). What was, in IBM’s lab, a heap of re-purposed machines and cables, became under Geddes’ hand a visually striking cabinet with streamlined corners, luminous surfaces, and an imposing presence once installed at Harvard. The design specifications even extended to the room itself, including special lighting and a reflective tile floors.

These early aesthetic choices achieved several ends. It ensured that IBM, who footed the bill for the device, presented an appealingly modern object before the flashbulbs of the newspaper reporters (that IBM failed to gain much mention in these headlines, however, is another story altogether). The glass enclosure, moreover, helped damped the acoustic racket of the calculator’s electro-mechanical switches, which achieved their binary computation through physically toggling on and off in a great feat of coordinating clattering. In the process, however, access to the machine was greatly restricted to both its operators and public. Thirdly, the connotative power of the design’s sleek surface and tapered corners endowed the device with a powerful sense of futurity. The visually apparent complexity, cloaked in temporal ornament, seemed startlingly out of place in 1940s Harvard, if not also out of time.

The press conference at its unveiling, orchestrated by Harvard rather than IBM, helped instantiate the electronic calculator as a science fictional object. As with the prior publicity afforded to the ENIAC, newspapers expressed a nervous excitement in the face of the “electronic superbrain” of the new, seemingly cognitive, machine. Its autonomy was scrutinized in equal measure as its speed and applications were celebrated. Despite the repeated corrections of scientists and engineers, the brain proved to be an enduring metaphor to describe the early computers of the 1940-1960s. In this way, the computer entered into discourse as a worryingly powerful individual, haunted by the Gothic sense of something animate lurking behind the implacable glass exterior that both revealed and concealed the mechanisms within.

This term I seek to understand how these associations may have been conditioned by the aesthetic choices and media spectacle of IBM’s early computers. How was futurity gathered in these objects, and to what end?