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Electronic Brains

After the second world war the computing expertise that had been developed to break codes and the calculate ballistic information was reapplied to commerce. New computers began to appear that could perform calculations at previously impossible speeds. These new devices entered the public consciousness through great feats of computation - such as predicting election results - and were often described as Electronic Brains. They were huge - often filling a number of rooms - and later evolved in to the equally large, but much more powerful, 'mainframe' computers.

My collection of materials from this first era of computing focusses on a specific interest in the work of pioneering US computer manufacturer UNIVAC in 1950s (for a while the company was like 'Hoover', synonymous with the product class they had created), plus a general interest in the computer-as-brain metaphor and how it was used in the 1950s and 1960s. I'm always interested in talking to people who worked with computers during this era and have any memories or materials to share - if you did, please get in touch.

The Utica UNIVAC Hoard (1950s - 1970s)

I have a small part of a vast collection of items from the long-closed UNIVAC factory in Utica. In 1998 the discovers of the Utica UNIVAC Hoard were able to get permission to remove hundreds of discarded items from the old factory. They then cleaned them up and put most in to storage. More than 10 years later they began to list the items for sale on eBay. I was fortunate enough to win a few boxes of components, circuit boards, tapes and documents.

The collection is interesting a many ways. First, there is the the story of the discovery. I have exchanged emails with one of the discovers and he has put together an amazing account of how he and a friend discovered the old factory in the basement of a shopping mall and negotiated the retrieval of the contents with the building's owners. Then there are the items themselves. Multicoloured coloured circuit boards with gold tracks take on the look of long-lost items of jewellery. Punched paper tape and cards look like scrolls written in a forgotten language (although of course I can translate them by decoding the binary digits represented!). Individual components become beads and baubles with hidden meanings. Then there is the last part of story. The items have now been sent around the world via the auction site. Where has the hoard ended up? What sort of people now own it? What new uses might the items be put to?

As well as my small selection of the Utica UNIVAC Hoard items themselves, I was able to obtain photographs of the other items and get the permission to use them how I wish (so long as I acknowledge the source). I'm going to let my ideas settle over time, but there are clearly lots of creative possibilities contained within this story.

UNIVAC Advertisements (1950s)

In the 1950s UNIVAC promoted their products as being essential tools for modern business and science. In their magazine advertisements they drew peoples' attention to UNIVAC's association with big companies like U.S. Steel and General Electric and cultivated a hi-tech and futuristic image. I have a dozen or so original UNIVAC advertisements from magazines of the time, as well as a few from other computer manufacturers. A selection of the advertisements are shown in the gallery below.

UNIVAC Promotional Materials (1957)

In 1957 a 12-year old boy with an interest in science and atomic energy wrote a letter to UNIVAC asking for information about their computers. He got a reply from the company and was sent a bundle of technical and promotional materials. Over 50 years later he still has the materials and I have been able to obtain colour photo copies, as well as copies of the letters.

The Baltimore Sun Photographs (1950s)

I have a dozen original black and white photographs from the mid-1950s that were purchased from The Baltimore Sun archives. They feature various computers from the time, most with besuited people operating them. All pictures have the label Electronic Brains written on the back, together with notes and publication dates. Three of the photographs are shown in the gallery. I am particularly taken by the formidable-looking female operator in one photograph and would love to uncover her story. In the early days of computing many of the programmers and operators were women mathematicians who had developed their expertise during the second world war. Was she such a person? Update: I now know that the woman in the picture is Ethel Marden, a mathematician at the National Bureau of Standards, and the computer she is using is the SEAC. Ethel's story is quite extraordinary.

The Man With The Electronic Brain (1961)

Issue 128 of the DC comic Strange Adventures contained a story that captured the essence of the post-war view of computers with the story The Man With The Electronic Brain. The protagonist of the story has the potential to both save and destroy the world with his immense, but potentially destructive, computer enhanced intellect. What will the outcome be? I managed to find a copy of the original comic on eBay. I don't yet know how I'm going to use it.

Recollection: Ladybird Books How It Works... The Computer (mid-1970s)

I'm pretty sure that the first book I ever read about computers was the Ladybird Books How it Works... The Computer. It would have been when I was at primary school in the mid-1970s and was probably a bit dated even then (I think it was the 1971 edition). The school library also had The How and Why Wonders Book of... Robots and Electronic Brains - another book about computers aimed at the younger reader that I've since discovered was published in 1963! I think both books describe the world of computers before the arrival of the 'micro' extremely well. Coincidently, I ended up going to University to study computing in Loughborough, the original home of Ladybird Books.

Gallery

Books

1960. Digital Computer and Control Engineering by Robert S Ledley [PDF].
1963. The How and Why Wonders Book of Robots and Electronic Brains by Robert Scharff.
1966. Basic Digital Computer Concepts by Donald Whitworth.
1967. Electronic Computers Made Simple by Henry Jacobowitz.
1969. The Use of Computers for Profit by Laura Tatham.
1970. A Dictionary of Computers. Penguin Books.
1971. How It Works... The Computer. Ladybird Books [Website].
1972. Man and the Computer by John G Kemeny.
1975. The Way Things Work Book of the Computer. George Allen & Unwin.

1990. A Few Good Men From UNIVAC by David E Lundstrom.
2003. A History of Modern Computing by Paul E Ceruzzi.
2005. Electronic Brains by Mike Halley.
2007. Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers by M Richards and J Alderman.

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Links