Now here’s a high end coffee table book to appeal to hipsters and geeks alike. The Core Memory – A Visual Survey Of Vintage Computers photo book, published in Japan by O’Reilly, depicts the exteriors and innards of a mainframe. American photographer Mark Richards and author John Alderman show the visual beauty of seventy years of history, from steampunk-like screws to orderly wire chaos. We get to feel nostalgic seeing machines ranging from supercomputers and defense systems bearing acronyms such as SAGE, ILLIAC, ENIAC to the Kitchen Computer. For the launch of the exquisite Japanese edition (sporting a different cover), Mark and John came to Tokyo. PingMag had a long chat with them in the storage room of a major department store in Shinjuku – surrounded by computers and fax machines. What an appropriate setting!
Written by Verena
When did it all start with the book? You took all of the pictures at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley…
Mark: I happened to see a geek kind of convention there where they would run the old machines. I saw the ILLIAC IV [from 1975] and it opened a world. I thought that everybody is doing the nerd aspect and there is just this whole alternative world of of the art. Meaning you don’t really care what it does, it just looks beautiful. Of course, you have the nostalgia. It took two years to convince people, between meetings and missed opportunities.
Maybe people saw it always from the technical side but didn’t see the design as appealing. Now, what does core memory mean?
Mark: It’s an older type of memory and has obviously a dual meaning: core, the heart of…
John: The interesting thing is that it’s always like a bunch of wires woven together with little magnetised ends and tons and tons of them, basically 1-0, like on-off.
Mark: You could literally see the memory, very poetic.
John: And when you turned the electricity off, it stayed in the same position. That was called retain state.
Sweet nostalgia! That seems to be so far away from today. Interesting to see what survived and what ended being vaporware… because of the interface, or also the design?
John: There are all kinds of stories behind: some were obviously a bad idea, like the Kitchen Computer Honeywell H316 [from 1969]. It came with a two-week course for programming to store your recipes on its table that was not even fully flat. Not one was sold…
Mark: That was just PR for Neiman Marcus, a super high-end store in America. It was used in a lot of ads to show the future.
John: But they put some effort in it putting it together!
Mark: Look at this – we are still talking about it so many years later. We are not saying how great Neiman Marcus is, but in PR they are.
What else survived?
John: One of the trends is playfulness. When the Macintosh came out people thought it was a toy. But, in fact, that’s the interface that’s stuck with us. People said We need line-based interfaces like MS-DOS and Macintosh is not serious. That was the big criticism, but it was sophisticated. Things that engage tend to stick around. Also, the Commodore 64 had lots of graphics, lots of playful interface. That was the smash hit for a long time. Same thing with PlayStation versus Wii.
Very true. In the foreword, Dag Spicer of the Computer History Museum wrote What computers mean to us depends largely on what we bring to them. And interestingly, many or most of the computers in the book were made specifically for the Cold War. Like all these defense systems…
John: It basically starts out with World War II, a deeply traumatic event for the whole world – but also a desperately creative moment. There was technological acceleration driven in this desperate pace, trying to kill the other people. Propelling all this innovation which is horrifying on one hand but also something you have to accept as a certain apart of human nature. And you see it’s transforming too: Then it becomes a commercial success and then they are more interested in other things than purely killing. And then there is the game playing and all that, even that involves virtual killing, of course.
Mark: If you look at the ENIAC, Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer [from 1946], it’s really a beautiful story in itself. Actually women were doing the calculations. Then this machine was going to replace all the people because they started doing these tables for artillery and it was just not humanly possible to do both. So from the get go it changed the idea of productivity. I mean, we would kill each other anyway, this machine just made it more possible.
John: They were coming out with newer and deadlier artillery and the women were making the trajectory charts. That was the bottom line for introducing new artillery: being able to compute these trajectories. So they thought Let’s get a mechanical computer to do this!
And money was never a problem probably…
Mark: There was lots of money and everything was undefined. The way the military system works is that the money aspect is the last part of the impact. You define a problem and you try to solve it; you meet the spec and that’s what counts.
John: No one thinks of the military as a very creative organisation. But that’s the way they have all this money thrown at something…
Mark: And think of the current military: The DARPA organisation, a sub-part of the Department of Defense (DoD), that is doing those driverless vehicle contests every two years. They were also the ones that developed the Internet…
… with a little face? CDC 6600 © Core Memory
Let’s go back in time. There was the CDC 6600 from 1964 that was deployed in nuclear weapons facilities. Oddly enough, the people who worked on it also used it in their free time to play games…
Mark: However, that computer also helped bring about negotiations with the Russians. Before, you actually had to explode a weapon to see if it was going to work. With computers like that you could then do the calculations where you didn’t have to do explosions, or you could do limited explosions. The underground nuclear test treaty was brought about because of our advances in computing power and that limited the amount of explosions. Eventually it went to do the weather and other predictions like that.
And then there was the famous SAGE – the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, the US air defense network that started in 1954…
John: The SAGE was incredibly well funded, driven by the fact that everybody was afraid of an invasion by Soviet bombers.
Mark: But don’t forget that it was an international project that fell back into itself with all its tube technology. Guess who made the tubes at the end of the Cold War? The Russians! So, its tubes were borrowed from the Russians because theirs were cheaper on the market.
John: Apart from that, they had come up with a graphic interface that pulled in all data about the state of a nation’s skies, like their radar. That was the first really involved graphic interface – they had a light gun, which later became a light pen, and then a mouse. But by the time they had it built, they had inter-continental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] that were too fast to track, so you couldn’t respond to it. They spent all this money on these installations and in the end it was useless – and yet all those innovations came out of it. They used it as the basis for the Airline Reservation System for American Airlines.
We only go in ‘full speed!’ WISC from 1955. © Core Memory
Mark: The missiles part is actually interesting. The only reason they could develop the ICBMs was because of the innovations that those computers were based on. It was a race with the computers. Also, now they were small enough to go on ICBM because you still needed a hell of a lot of computing power to do calculations and mid-course corrections, since this was before GPS and all was internal.
Looking today at DEFCON, the online strategy game that mimics the actual Cold War setting, it feels a bit weird. Or remember the WarGames movie that deals with an atomic scenario as game. Could that have ever happened for real?
Mark: Most of the mistakes are simply made by communication. Actually, I was in DEFCON 2 during the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. The Egyptians had a surprise attack and the Russians were going to airlift supplies to the Egyptians. I think that was when they invoked DEFCON 2, what was mostly a signal like You are stepping over the line. It was pretty crazy and that’s how those things happen: Somebody makes a move and then they don’t calculate right…
Crazy hysteria indeed. For distraction, let’s plunge a bit into the amazing visual side of it. What’s your favourite computer in the Core Memory book?
John: The SAGE, but I also like the System/360 [from 1964] because it was the first one that allowed for people to operate programs between different models within the system. Up to then, companies were reluctant to get any computer because their needs in the future might change and they would have to totally redo everything. So, IBM created a whole line with a virtual machine inside that basically simulated a computer in each one to ensure inter-operability.
Mark: The IBM Model 077 Collator card reader [from 1937] is my favourite. Actually that’s not rust on it, it’s grease because of the gears. I just love the tones!
John: I also like the TRS-80 by RadioShack. The Apple II was out and it was the one for all the rich kids, but my parents weren’t quite ready to shovel out that much money. So I got the TRS and learned to love it.
We bet that many people recognised their first computers in your book…
Mark: When the CDC 6600 machine shut down, you had to start it up again by flipping the switches. I have a big print of it [see above] and at the opening of the book exhibition, someone walked by, looked at it and said This switch is off by 1. He remembered all these years how that binary code was!
Wow. What do you think about today’s computers and their design?
Photographer Mark Richards and author John Alderman. Thanks for the book!!
Mark: Boring. It’s too ubiquitous…
John: … but that makes it exciting! When I started working, computers were fairly rare. Now, everybody is staring at one all day long. Our whole world is seen through that, so there’s the need to get the interface right. That ubiquity makes it interesting.
Mark: I think that’s temporary. In a few years, certain people will have kind of a Wii interface and they won’t sit down but move to do things. And imagine how they do it at the TED talks, think about a big touch screen and a USB implant…
Looking forward very much to future interfaces. And it would be lovely to have a Core Memory exhibition here too! Thank you, Mark and John!
Core Memory is available over at Amazon, also have a look at the beautiful Japanese edition, folks.