Student researches computer’s portrayal in the media

Peter Kauffner

People who wanted a really hot computer in the 1940s yearned for “Girl Power,” a proposed measure of computation speed.
At least that’s what copywriters for the John Plain Company of Chicago thought.
They claimed that the company’s Distribution computer had a calculating capacity of 150 Girl Power, said Pat Hemmis, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel, who is researching how the media portrayed early computers.
The rating was intended to suggest that the machine could perform calculations 150 times faster than a computation specialist could working manually. At that time, such specialists were called “computers,” an occupation that was held predominantly by women.
“(Girl Power) was just pulled out of the air,” said Bruce Bremmer, an archivist at the University’s Charles Babbage Institute who assists Hemmis. “There was no scientific basis for it.”
Hemmis said that around the end of World War II, the media began portraying the computer more as a thinking entity than as a machine.
“The computer was discussed in public not as tool, but as a powerful brain,” Hemmis said.
An early example of this tendency was Edmund Berkeley’s 1949 book envisioning a computerized future, “Giant Brains or Machines That Think.” The book featured pictures in which “humans and computers are inextricably linked,” Hemmis said. For example, one picture in the book depicted a man with wires on his head instead of hair.
When the first computer was invented, it was seen as more than simply a new and improved calculating device. It was instead viewed as an invention with the potential of replacing humans, or at least competing with them.
“When there was concern about the replacement of factory workers by machines, there was art which would show robots made up of the machine parts that the company made,” Hemmis said. “If it was management presenting it, (they talked about) how many humans could be replaced and how much money could be saved.”
Those savings could have been measured in Girl Power had the John Plain Company sold more distributions.
In the 1960s, computers and computer terminology even became linked with women’s fashion. The transistor, which was invented in 1947, made “miniaturization” a scientific buzzword. Its influence can be seen in various high-tech and high-fashion words that were coined at that time, including minidress, miniskirt and minicomputer.
“You see it at the Minnesota State Fair in 1969 with the miniskirts and the really high-styled caps and everything (in Control Data Corporation’s display),” Hemmis said. “You see it also in Control Data’s advertisements. They start showing very high fashion illustrations of women with computer peripherals right at the same time.”
The computer’s cultural influence can also be seen in the popularity of large glass-walled rooms. Early computers were placed in such rooms that allowed them to be prominently displayed, while at the same time protecting them from dust and humidity.
These computers used colored lights to show memory content. When the lights flashed during calculations, many viewers got the impression that the machine was thinking. Photographers even had engineers attach flashing lights to one computer simply to enhance its visual appeal for a newsreel.
“People started equating computers with flashing lights,” Bremmer said. “Appliance manufacturers would put in flashing lights to send the message that this is high tech.”
Hemmis said the tradition of adding basically useless flashing lights continues today. Animated graphics in the upper corners of World Wide Web browsers are examples of this.

— Staff Reporter Joe Carlson contributed to this story