The Aesthetics of Early Computing- Object 2

by scholastress

ssec- columns edited out

The IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator

IBM probably built the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) in part due to revenge. Their lack of control over the public relations generated by the ASCC soured T. J. Watson to Harvard, and soon after the debacle he ordered that a better, more electric calculator to be built within a year. The resulting machine, fusing experiments with vacuum tube and mechanical relays, made its debut in 1948 under tightly controlled conditions.

The SSEC was housed next to the IBM headquarters in New York, taking over a building that had formally housed a shoe store. The renovated show room, visible from the street, was designed to cultivate the curiosity of chance spectators, who were wholly welcome to enter and engage with the behemoth through a ever-present tour guide. The press, moreover, was given no room for chance reaction. A carefully crafted press-release, pamphlet, and news conference supplied the papers with the correct superlative quotes and figures to frame the machine and the company.

Strangely enough, IBM seemed to cultivate the brain metaphor in this coverage, acting antithetical to the non-corporate actors of the early American computers. The IBM tour guide, while giving caveats as to the limits of the machine’s cognitive autonomy, nevertheless referred to it as a brain and would walk individuals through its surprisingly human-like thought process while they circled the room.

Like the ACSS, the SSEC’s aesthetics served to reinforce the futurity and otherworldlyness of the science-fictional calculator. Extraneously streamlined peripherals and corners graced the exterior of the device, giving its a future-modern appearance, while much of its machinery remained hidden unseen behind the quasi-nave of the device’s U-shaped architecture. Conversely, the SSEC’s colourful lights and knobs, dancing in quadrants behind its lengthy glass panels, might suggest the stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral. The computer was designed to simultaneously be seen without being fully present to understanding; a raised floor concealed the wiring between different components, while the moving patterns of tape and switches provided clear auditory and visual signs of life, if not in a meaning.

Perhaps the most evocative aspect of the calculator was the set of problems selected to debut the machine, both as a test of its capacities and as a key component of the image it would present in the news cycle of its release. In a highly poetic vein, the SECC set about determining the exact position of the moon, every six hours, 100 years in the past and 100 years in the present. This cosmic beginning, out-doing the scope of a human lifetime in its span and exceeding the globe in its reach, further enmeshed the computer in a strange untimelyness. Beneath the incomprehensible flight of lights and paper tape, the public was told, lay the movements of celestial bodies. Yet this too concealed much: after the lunar cycles came simulations of the hydrogen-bomb. Added to the mystique and menace of the computer, then, we can add the role of mediator over mass death, oblivion made available with devestating scale and ease. As a super brain, and the gateway to the incomprehensible terror of the atomic age, the computer was indeed a Gothic space to bottle anxiety and ambition in equal measure.