queerfragments

Particulate arising from study

Category: Early Computer Aesthetics

See the SSEC In Action

I was delighted to finally get my hands on the 1952 film Walk East on Beacon, a noir of questionable merit that has the distinction of featuring the SSEC in a minute-long cameo. Uploaded here is the scene in question, in which the patriotic scientist makes a breakthrough of great import (only later to be extorted by wholly unconvincing Soviet sleeper agents).

Of great interest to me is the speed of the flashing lights on what appears to be the SSEC’s sequence relays. How could this visual information be meaningfully interpreted by the human eye? Could its engineers pick up even the grossest pattern in its whirling activity? Why, moreover, did the designers include and so neatly order the lights? Was this intended to serve any purpose other than mystification?

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The IBM Symphony

I thought you might enjoy Vittorio Giannini’s IBM Symphony, comissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The event and IBM’s president were jointly committed to the idea of world peace and prosperity through free trade, and the symphony was one of many spectacles dedicated to this theme.

Listen as the tumultuous passages of the initial movement gives way to a rousing, if not entirely artistically meritorious, blend of national anthems and company song. Ever onward IBM!

Inside an Electronic Brain

1948_ibm_ssec_large

“In appearance, a digital calculator–SECC, for instance– is a large chamber or more whose sides are glass enclosed panels of electronic tubes. When SSEC is at work, the panels blink furiously with a click-clacking sound, a galaxy of noisy glass stars in a glass sky. Standing in this chamber with the IBM motto, THINK, emblazoned over the doorway, visitors sometimes remark that they feel not like a man with a brain inside him, but like a brain with a man inside it.”

– John Kobler, “You’re Not Very Smart at All,” Saturday Evening Post , vol. 222 no. 34 (Februrary 18 1950): 111.

From Your Valentine, the SSEC

curiouser and curiouser

Popular sources, including Columbia who were so intimately involved with the history of the device, identify the SSEC as the titanic computer in the February 11th 1961 New Yorker cover. I’m not so sure; by this time the SSEC had been long decomissioned to make way for faster IBM machines in the company showroom. The proportunes of the calculator, its colour scheme, and the architecture of the interior, moreover, are off. If there’s anything SSEC-ish about the image, it’s the visual vocabulary-cum-hyperbole that the device seemed to set into motion for cartoonists and set designers across the country.

Behemouth towers of tapes, blinking lights, and reels filled the popular imagination of the American 1950s and 60s, and the SSEC was arguably a primary source for this aesthetic. In addition to the sleek photographs that followed it successful media debut, IBM consented to cameo the computer in the 1952 noir film Walk East on Beacon!, a cold war spy-thriller that I’m very much looking forward to watching. A further appearence of a sort can be found in Desk Set, a Katherine Hepburn rom com from 1954 that reportedly used the SSEC as a model from which to design the film’s major plot device, the EMERAC: a corporate computer set to productivize a broadcast company and antagonize all its employees in the process.

It’s curious, then, that the New Yorker selected such an intimate moment to display between the giant, futuristic machine and its aged worker (the rest of the office presumably made redundant in its wake?). Young women were far more germane to the promotional imagery of the computer, moreover, such as Betsy Stewart’s deft handling of the SSEC in secretary-like fashion during its public debut.

ssec-console

The New Yorker cover, conversely, seems to take us into the future of this image. The computer secretary, now wizened with age, receives a token of affection back from the machine that she has attended to for so long. In contrast to the vivid anxieties at play at the time concerning the thinking power and autonomy of the emerging technology, one in which through sheer rationality and super-human speed electronic calculators would come to subordinate their keepers, the valentine shows a rather different capacity for thoughtfulness. The warmth of the woman’s desk lamp and smile do much to humanize the electronic brain. IBM, however, would not begin to realize the importance of such gestures until later in the decade.