The use of computers as props brings authenticity to works on the big and small screens, and can also inspire many different feelings in the viewer. Early filmmakers contributed powerful visions of the future to our collective consciousness. From the manipulative robot doppelgänger of the science fiction silent Metropolis (1927), to supercomputers entering the workplace in the romantic comedy Desk Set (1957), technology most often creates a sense of wonder in an audience. Sometimes entertainment taps into concerns about the rise of machines affecting humanity’s place in the world. Other times, it presents mechanization as full of potential for making improvements to our world. In recent years, new television series are beginning to explore the relatively recent history of the rise of the computer industry.
When asked about how they heard about the museum, recent visitors to Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum (LCM) told the staff they saw its name in the “Special Thanks” section of the credits for the acclaimed series Mad Men. Hearing about the museum through the film and television industry is an increasingly common occurrence. LCM is dedicated to the preservation, renovation, and display of important milestones in computer technology. In just a couple years it has developed into a destination where anyone can learn its history by interacting with machines from the mid-20th century to modern day. When the film and television industry seek genuine pieces of computing history many productions reach out to LCM.
Viewed through the lens of the advertising industry, Mad Men takes place from 1960 to 1970, and comments on major events and trends from that timeframe. Once the scripts called for the exploration, growing influence, and use of computers, the production design team contacted LCM for an artifact to complete the computer room set at the fictional agency of Sterling Cooper & Partners (SC&P). IBM was the industry leader of that era and had launched the revolutionary System/360 family of computers in 1964. For Mad Men an IBM System/360 Model 30 was the chosen computer. What viewers see is largely a replica, but the IBM 1052 Printer-Keyboard is the genuine article from LCM. Introduced in 1963, a 1052 would accompany many System/360 computers. The arrival of the computer in the offices of SC&P is met with mixed feelings by the staff, from excitement to dread. This depicts the difficult relationship of that era- just as computers were making tasks easier, many feared that automation would lead to dehumanization.
Another piece of the IBM System/360 family was loaned out for the recently released Tomorrowland. This big-budget Disney film sends viewers into both our past and into a futuristic parallel world. Technology is depicted as a benevolent marvel as well as a dangerous weapon. This time, set decorators borrowed a different piece of the IBM System/360, a console panel from a Model 91 mainframe. The Model 91 was a larger and much more powerful computer than the Model 30, and fewer units were produced. The console, which is all that remains of a machine once used at Princeton University, was part of a set recreating the 1964 World’s Fair. The piece can be found on display at the Seattle Cinerama until June 9th during screenings of Tomorrowland.
LCM most recently loaned several IBM peripherals to the production of Halt & Catch Fire for use in the second season of the show. The series revolves around a computer company in Texas’ “Silicon Prairie” area in the early 1980s, a time when computer industry was quickly expanding, and the right innovation might be the key to fame and riches. Museum staff will be paying attention to the May 31st premiere and subsequent episodes, and will be sure to make note of LCM artifact appearances through Facebook and Twitter.
LCM was also featured as part of The History Channel’s The United Stuff of America exploring the history of 1980’s when personal computing was on the rise and many iconic machines were created. LCM’s Bob Barnett was interviewed onsite about the impact of the Commodore 64, one of the most successful products in computing history. (Look for the IBM System/360 Model 91 in the background!)
The Living Computer Museum showcases the machines that shaped computing history, and has helped add authenticity to the rich stories of Mad Men, Tomorrowland, and Halt & Catch Fire. Society’s relationship with computers- sometimes a wellspring of inspiration, other times a source of uneasiness or outright fear- is undeniably a relationship that will continue to evolve. LCM will continue its own mission to preserve the past, and support others who include computers and their history in tales of their own.