When Computers Were Giant
IT BOGGLES the mind to think that computers which literally filled rooms a few decades ago couldn’t come close to the computers that easily fit in the palm of our hand today. That phone in your pocket can do much more than the giant whirring behemoths brought in on a wench in 1973… It’s an amazing advancement when you stop and think about it.
Old science fiction movies and television shows which attempted to depict the computers of tomorrow never predicted anything coming close the compactness of an iPad. They definitely overshot the artificial intelligence aspect [HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey (1968), Colossus from Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Proteus from The Demon Seed (1977), etc.] but seemingly overlooked the possibility that these things might get small. In other words, we knew they’d get smarter, but we always assumed they’d stay big.
Despite the fact that these gargantuan hulks of metal couldn’t do much, we intuitively knew they’d be central to our future. Just try to find an example of early science fiction which doesn’t feature computers heavily. The pointlessly beeping colored lights in the background are essential to the futuristic effect.
It all looks so damned impressive. No wonder they were so giddy about computers; you felt like Captain Kirk at the helm of your own starship. Never mind the fact this room of computers couldn’t do in a year what your smartphone can do in a microsecond. Even by the early eighties a 30 megabyte disk drive was the size of a washing machine and cost a half a million dollars.
A lot of the early pictures of computers feature women at the keyboard. Data Processing was actually considered “women’s work” back then since it involved so much typing (“real men” didn’t type) and a lot of mindless punch card manual labor. Take a college course in Data Processing in 1972 and you’re likely to find the students to be exclusively females.
If there happens to be a man in the photograph, he’s no doubt in charge. Have no fear, little lady. The men have arrived.
“When the yellow button lights up that means go make coffee. When the green one lights up, that means go take dictation. Got it?” Ms. Honeywell pretends to listen while fantasizing about his tragic elevator accident.
My understanding is that the noise generated from these suckers was enormous, and you could basically roast marshmallows over the vents. Plus, they were far from reliable, and only two guys on the planet knew how to fix them. Seeing the immensity of these things, you can appreciate the audacity of predicting one in every home!
The best thing about these old computers was the fab design. The painted veneer, built in buttons and knobs…. nice. Sure, it took forty minutes and a stack of punch cards to calculate the square root of 625, but they sure looked cool.
I’m not sure why, but his is sort of how I picture the NSA data center. I haven’t the faintest idea what a system which collects 5 zetabytes of data actually looks like, but until I find out, I will picture it looking like rooms full of old gargantuan reel-to-reel computers.
We can joke that it took a computer the size of a two-car garage to do long division, but we really need to be asking ourselves: Will we be poking fun at 2014 computers forty years from now? Will the iPad look laughable to our grandchildren? I think we can be pretty confident that it will. Given the insane rate of technological development we’ve experienced of late, it won’t take decades.
It’s also easy to get a little arrogant looking at these pictures of the Jurassic Office; but how will our own offices appear 40 years from now? Will we point and laugh at the cubicle mazes of today? And just as science fiction failed to predict the compactness, what critical innovation will come as a complete surprise to even the best tech prophets of our age?
What the future of technology will look like, we can’t be sure. One thing that is assured: there will still be lots of pictures of cats.