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Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age

by Megan Prelinger
W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., NY, 2015
272 pp. Trade; $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-393-08359-0

Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


In full disclosure, I already had a positive opinion of Megan Shaw Prelinger when this book arrived. She was an integral part of Bad Subjects: Political Education in Everyday Life (bad.eserver.org) during a very vital era in its history. From about 1998 to 2005, she helped direct our editorial group, edit articles and theme issues, plus contributed several thoughtful essays herself. While I'd pretty much fallen out of touch with Prelinger, I was aware only of her work in shore bird rescue (which she failed to mention when noting an ad featuring a missile with the avian name Fairchild Petrel), but not the direction of her research and publication.

I never read Prelinger's first book Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1982. Might I like it as much as boyhood reads Man's Reach Into Space by Roy Gallant, illustrated by Lee Ames, or my Classics Illustrated comic, Illustrated Story of Space, on the topic? Space science informs this volume too, opening with a 1917 Bell Telephone company ad celebrated its transcontinental service with an illustration of the Earth orbiting around the sun. Tubes, thyristors and other electronics follow, depicted floating in space, or earth orbit.

This reviewer has another personal interest in this book, though. My electrical engineer father (1906-2000) left me a basement and backyard shed full of mid-century electronic components, some with manuals, as well as many magazines from his professional era, so much of the imagery presented here is nostalgic to me, rendered by compelling illustrators at the time of its manufacture for the technical market and its corporate purchasers. "The Atom, the Planet, the Tube" opens the book with depictions the vacuum tube and the cathode ray tube. Before they were employed in televisions, cathode ray tubes were in oscilloscopes; hooked up to a microphone to visualize sound waves, one oscilloscope transfixed me at age six when demonstrated at a University of Michigan College of Engineering "Technorama" showcase, a sort of student/faculty science fair.

Wavy lines were used in advertisements as a design element suggesting similar electromagnetic waveforms. In the 1940s, artist Herbert Bayer had built up a "history of creating graphic strategies to humanize technology by integrating it into an organic context." Harold Flucke and others added silhouettes of planes and an Audion tube, a businessman at his desk inside a tube, Littiputian technicians, or a CRT with an atomic symbol, and symbolic electrons orbiting around the Earth. A 1960 Aviation Week ad featured an electronic device and operator, the information inside several CRT screens, a satellite and Earth itself. There was also an artists' conception of the inside of NORAD missile system headquarters, big screens not really technically feasible for several more decades.

Another chapter examines the crystalline structure of molecules, used as a reassuring organized metaphor of "better living through chemistry" as a DuPont advertising slogan once proclaimed. Crystals of quartz sparkle in IBM and Raytheon ads in PROC IRE magazine, the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, for electronics made use of piezoelectrical effect in radio frequencies' transmission and receiving. Semiconductors, diodes, capacitors all made their appearances in late 1940s and the 1950s as they were invented and manufactured. This chapter helped me to learn what some of the electronic components I inherited are. A 1945 ad for the Cornell Dubilier Company features women assemblers, a mother passing down the necessary skills to her daughter. Illustrator Bayer collaged quartz, fern, fossil, baby, space, starfish, and butterfly into a rich composition for General Electric in 1942, while Walter Murch created "realist" paintings, much like seventeenth century Dutch still lives. Other ad designers made use of hovering crystals, microphotographs of ferrites, more abstract drawing and painting--much as crystals were used in dystopian fiction by J.G. Ballard and to depict LSD hallucinations in comics drawn by Ann Arbor teenagers 45 years ago.

Bardeen, Brattan and their boss Shockley invented the transistor to supersede the vacuum tube amplification in a much smaller and easily-manufactured size. Gordon Teal's silicon transistor inspired an ad that paired transistors with deserts (the sand as silicon too) and cacti, while others used what Prelinger astutely calls "paint swatch modernism". Another made use of a glowing city reminiscent of the late Mike Kelley's "Kandors" city-sculptures of the past decade. Not included here, the 1946 painting "Radio Repair Shop" by Jacob Lawrence, in the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts, makes creative use of circuitry as supergraphic decorations on the shop's walls. Then a graphics job I took in 1985 for the chance to learn "computer graphics" had me constructing circuit diagrams for interactive video instruction that taught basic electronics near San Francisco, and after that, circuitry began to enter my own artwork too. I've been linking figures and imposing another visual layer with these symbols on my paintings and drawings since then. To underscore the role of America's electronics in the Cold War, one 1950s ad adapted the Communist hammer and sickle, sort of like a transistor symbol; as I write this, a virtual reality-programming computer science student is constructing my own navigable virtual museum in the shape of transistor symbol.

When printed circuits came along, fine graphic design was applied to its advertisement, with simplicity (gestalt), legibility of type (not competing with image), solid colors enhancing details. Circuits are clearly rendered against background textures. Etched circuit boards, linking plastic, alloys and electronics and patented about 1950 became visual elements in ads. Some ads looked like hand-pulled prints, collages of molecules. The manufacturing process was improved with plastic mask for etching and, then, flexible circuits about 1960, a ribbon of connections containing the etched copper. Draftspersons are shown creating circuit plan drawings though an illustrator named Litton drew a beatnik artist --barefoot, with chin beard, locks poking from his beret-- blissfully painting circuits. Hey, that's me!

A Bell Telephone magazine ad from 1944, commemorated the telegraph's centennial, but also celebrated Samuel F.B. Morse's artistic eye in invention. Perhaps it later took artistic insights to bring together three fields: data processing, telecommunications, mathematical computing that were all accelerated in the computer's development. The IBM 608 mainframe of 1955 boasted transistors, magnetic core memory, and punch cards as input-output. A Walter Murch painting 1959 of a globe, interconnected by a network, recurrent image of an abacus, stamped receipt, five-bit paper tape and punch card. Another graphic showed a reel of magnetic tape, and graphic design motifs of keyboards, paper tape appeared. Eckert and Mauchly's first computer had only electric 17K memory, but the inventive pair went to Remington Rand corporation in 1950 for development of the UNIVAC, the first commercial vacuum-tube digital computer. This chapter circles back to fine art, in an appreciation of Colin Nancarrow's piano-roll music, and a cineaste's delight that Bell Lab's synthesized speech was used as the voice of Hal the computer in the 1969 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A chapter on visible language spins or spills out rows of numbers, repeated words, machine chatter. Designer Willi Baum's letterforms looked to concrete poetry and the Russian Constructivists for inspiration. As the 1950s evolved from electromechanical computers to fully digitized computing, the era of data processing and Grace Hopper's COBOL language, the MIT's Lincoln Lab designer Jacqueline Casey made visually metaphoric use of research in compression of reading text, recognition and voice. Though poets have mashed words and visual design throughout the 20th century, these images reminded me of the Language Poets of 1970s and 1980s San Francisco, their active practitioner and anthologist Ron Silliman. The eighth chapter examines space electronics, with imagery of astronauts, Sputnik, orbiting satellites, the late 1950s, early 1960s, and John F. Kennedy's commitment of a US man on the moon by 1970. Illustrator Ken Snell showed men at masses of switch panels and CRT displays, pulse code wrapping around and computers behind it all.

The book concludes with a chapter on bionic imagery that prefigured the turn-of-the-millennium trope of the posthuman. Ads used bionic humans (usually men) as a visual metaphor of a hoped-for transhumanism. As the beneficiary of high tech cardiac and vascular surgeries, I tip my hat and recall William Gibson's insight, "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed." Images have been published of robots and mechanical man since chess-playing automata (generally fake) of the 18th century. The character Tik-Tok in Frank Baum's Oz book of 1907 was published about the same time Picasso and others began reassembling the human form in cubist paintings in Paris. Yet it seems to be surrealism that had the greater influence on tech promotion in ads featuring giant fingerprints, hand prints upon the continent, giant heart and disembodied head, floating neurons, a circulatory or nervous system as electric circuitry hovering in space, weird and memorable representations of biomedical electronics and Norbert Weiner's cybernetics.

J.R. Licklider--better known in Prelinger's part of California for launching and directing Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)--advocated human-computer symbiosis. Power plant schematics were fit into a head, as earlier were record changers, a TV chassis and a CRT in advertisements or service manual cover illustrations. There was an apocryphal Silicon Valley story that Steve Jobs at first wanted the Macintosh to be in the shape of a human head but was talked out of it. Marvin Minsky advocated computers' direct-to-brain input for productivity tasks at an IBM Almaden Research Center user interface symposium in 1998.

If there's one misgiving I have about Megan Prelinger's Inside the Machine, it's only a venal, personal one. With a carton of pages in the attic saved from musty, falling-apart 1950s, 1960s and 1970s publications in my late father's Michigan basement, I too had contemplated a book of "engineer-style" graphics and imagery from this distinctive realm. I've been scooped! Sigh. Prelinger's imagery is more colorful though, and her perspective more expansive in using these images to illustrate well-researched technology history. I'll take my consolation in the pleasure of periodically rereading her fine, informative and elegant book.

Last Updated 2nd January 2016

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