The Image of Computation

“They [space pods] were usually christened with feminine names, perhaps in recognition of the fact that their personalities were sometimes slightly unpredictable.” Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.

Science Fiction and Cold War Cool

Southern California was the coolest place to be in the 1960s. As Elizabeth Armstrong writes in Birth of the Cool, “In the postwar moment, when many Americans were still experiencing the residual fears of World War II and the specter of the atomic bomb...a more utopian vision persisted in Southern California.” Jazz was coming of age and the sleek geometries of European Modernism had fused with the grandeur of the West to form a kind of California chic that transcended art, architecture, music, and film. Cities like Los Angeles eschewed the hustle, bustle, and angst of New York City, promoting chiller vibes matched only by their consistently comfortable climate. This cultural and physical atmosphere inevitably led to a series of quintessentially American mid-century images, such as Julius Shulman’s photographs of the various Case Study Houses and Ernie Braun’s advertisements for Eichler Homes.


But while these images were promoting the famous California post-war lifestyle, modern computation was being developed at more serious places like Bell Labs, IBM, and Lincoln Laboratories at MIT. So if Shulman’s photograph of Case Study House #21 radiates an “essence of ‘cool,’” then Ezra Stoller’s photograph of the IBM 702 mainframe presents the antithesis: corporate, uptight, and square. While the first image, according to Elizabeth A.T Smith, “understates and domesticates the consummate coolness, rigor, and rationality of modern architecture,” the other highlights the scale and sterility of the military-industrial complex. And though the two compliment each other rather well, why is it that architectural history places much more significance on the former? The Case Study House photographs are so famous they have been scrutinized not only by architects, but also by sociologists and art critics. Oriel L. Lucero, for instance, offers a highly intricate social reading of this image and its gender relationships. She states, “The woman sits on the couch as testament to her domesticity, while the man operates the stereo as proof of his familiarity with the modern and mechanical...Like viewers who desire the newest and best products for their home, this non-specific couple appears as the ideal consumers representative of their class.” Unfortunately, the same kind of scrutiny has not been extended to images of mid-century computation. What exactly are the connections between mass media, computation, corporate architecture, and advertising? Here I will argue that Hollywood and Madison Avenue are just as responsible for our perception of computation as the military-industrial complex. They transmitted traditionalist values into the image of computation and perpetuated the status quo of mid-century America.


By 1960, television and film were quite mainstream in North America. As a result, the public placed much faith in their TV personalities and spokespersons. But computers were not part of this mainstream. Up until then they were regarded as clunky, room-sized apparatuses stored in basements of universities and government facilities. They were mysterious devices, covered with buttons, associated in the public imaginary with the threat of nuclear annihilation. In film, these anxieties were mitigated, on the one hand, by caricatured villains and debonair heroes—most clearly illustrated by the James Bond franchise—, and on the other by dark comedies like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. These movies presented to the public an image of the future peppered with computerized gadgets, neo-Bauhaus forms, and monumentally paranoid spaces. Computers were shown as massive, robust objects, undoubtedly capable of global destruction.

During this time, film and advertising toed the line between looming catastrophe and sleek futurism with their images of technology. Ken Adam, production designer for numerous Bond films, designed “isolated lairs and high-tech tools” influenced heavily by the modernisms of Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner. This “widescreen” architecture, as historian Jon Yoder has put it, presented the public with vast panoptic spaces, often filled with or otherwise managed by futuristic computing systems. For Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Adam designed the now-famous war room that was “one part concrete bomb-shelter, one game, one part animated map or scoreboard, [and] three parts paranoia;” an image that summarized the state of the Cold War at the time. Computation took center stage in Adam’s design for Strangelove. It made spatial the typical image of military analysts sitting in front of a radar screen. But Adam was just one among many artists pushing space-age imagery in Hollywood. Much like NASA imported the war’s top rocket scientists to aid their extra terrestrial ambitions, Hollywood welcomed artists and designers from Europe and the East Coast, giving them opportunities to craft lustrous images of the future. Artists like Chelsey Bonestell, an illustrator working primarily on sci-fi book covers and magazines, broke into the film business and designed sets for movies like War of the Worlds and Destination Moon. These artists made space travel look cool and modern, but something was still off.

Despite all the grandeur and excitement these Hollywood images produced, they did little to shift the status quo. Space travel and computation were fraught with masculine imagery and even the idea of California cool was “popularly seen,” as Thomas Hine puts it, “as a guy thing, a way of life in which women played little more than an ornamental role.” Even the decade’s most innovative film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, resorted to traditional stereotypes despite being set 40 years in the future. It reaffirms certain gender roles as it shows women primarily in the service of men as stewardesses, secretaries, or sales girls. The men, on the other hand are depicted as pilots and scientists. Just like Julius Shulman’s Case Study photographs, Kubrick’s canonical film projected a specific lifestyle into the future that mirrored the problematic one of the mid-century.

While 2001, could be read as naively misogynistic; it would be difficult to say the same of the James Bond franchise. Bond films are notorious for their exploitation of the female body and the perpetuation of chauvinism. Of course, much has been written about the Bond franchise, so in the context of our discussion, we can say that it peddled a specific kind of imagery that combined sleek architecture and technology with eroticism most evidently epitomized by the cool, sexy lifestyle of Playboy magazine. Commenting on this relationship between architecture, women, and James Bond, Yoder writes, “Misogynistic storylines are unusually common in films that use [John] Lautner houses as Diamonds are Forever, Bond battles two female bodyguards in the main space of the Elrod House. While fighting Bond, they seem to be performing erotically for him as much as trying to subdue him.” Whereas Dr. Strangelove addressed high-tech architecture as a paranoiac spatial mechanism, the Bond films presented viewers with an image of high-tech architecture as the backdrop for sexual encounters with heroes and villains.

IBM and Olivetti

“It would not be an overstatement to describe advertising as the characteristic rhetoric of democracy.” Daniel J. Boorstin, Democracy and Its Discontents: Reflections on Everyday America

“the machine that replaces your secretary and sets her free for full-time pre-marital sex will probably look less like a battery hen-house full of war-surplus W/T equipment than a tastefully two-toned filing cabinet with cooling louvres, discreetly wired to what appears to be a typewriter with ideas above its station.” Reyner Banham, “(Thinks): Think!” 1963

The lifestyle presented in the Case Study photographs and popular films of manly men and dainty women became the prototypical image when depicting images of computation. At the same time that Kubrick was developing 2001 and the Bond films were growing in popularity, companies like IBM and Olivetti were enmeshed in a race of their own. Each was attempting to rule the field of computing. Eager to expand their client base, which at the time consisted primarily of the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA, these computing giants saw the arrival of a corporate market eager to bring business into the space-age. But to sell these incredibly expensive (not to mention, space-consuming) machines, they had to first make them appeal to the world of business. Each took their own approach, IBM focused on the notion that “good design is good business,” and Olivetti focused on lifestyle and culture. And in the 1960s both approaches meant appealing to men.

As Richard Dyer has noted, “we look at the world through ideas of male sexuality. Even when not looking at male sexuality, we are looking at the world within its terms of reference.” It is therefore difficult to separate gender and politics from the specific imagery that came out of attempts by computing companies to appeal to the public. One need only look at the way design critic Reyner Banham described the future of computation as an example. Showrooms, corporate brochures, and advertisements put forth highly specific agendas of who computation was for and how it should be utilized. Both Olivetti and IBM worked with renowned designers not simply to design their products, but also to craft their corporate image as a whole. By replicating the same imagery as pop films and cool architecture, these corporations sold computation on its merits as a lifestyle.

Olivetti was one of the first companies to dissociate the computer with the image of war. In the 1950s and 60s, they worked with notable architects such as Mario Bellini and Ettore Sottsass to bring computation out of the military bunker and into the world of high design. In 1959, Olivetti announced the ELEA 9003. Designed by Sottsass, it was one of the most radically unique computing systems. For Sottsass, it was an exercise in total design; rather than simply design a shell or the cabinetry for the mainframe, he dove deep into all of its interior components designing everything from the input buttons to the central memory module. The ELEA 9003 introduced bright colors and whimsey to counter the popular “anxiety-inducing image of computing.” Yet, despite the mainframe’s moderate success, the company’s main focus remained its typewriters.

In 1964, Olivetti released a kind of hybrid computer-typerwriter, the Programma 101. Often referred to as the first desktop computer, it was a highly capable instrument. Its advertising campaign emphasized its portability and referenced how it might become part of our aforementioned California lifestyle. Similar imagery was used later when promoting their Sottsass designed Valentine typewriter, one of the most canonical Olivetti products. Their marketing campaign, according to AnnMarie Brennan, was “perhaps more important than the actual typewriter, [as it] was envisioned as a means to culturally ‘program’ a response from potential customers.” The company’s commitment to blending lifestyle, design, and technology can be seen in their collaborations with Carlo Scarpa on their Venice showroom, Mario Bellini on the TCV computer terminal, and the architecture firm BBPR on their New York City showroom.

This showroom on Fifth Avenue was influential in two major ways. First, as a kind of precursor to today’s Apple stores, it allowed the public to demo the company’s products in a chic upscale setting. Though mainly used to showcase its typewriters, it nevertheless presented an image of class and sophisticated design with its sculpted walls and glass storefront. Second, the showroom had a profound impact on Thomas Watson Jr., president of IBM. Upon encountering the store in 1954, Watson reportedly gathered a team of designers, among them architect Eliot Noyes and graphic designer Paul Rand to plan a complete makeover of IBM. John Harwood notes:

“Watson laid out a series of Olivetti ads and brochures he had been given by a manager from IBM Netherlands. He then insisted that IBM’s products and sales apparatus needed a makeover. As he recalled in his memoirs, ‘the Olivetti material was filled with color and excitement and fit together like a beautiful picture puzzle. Ours looked like directions on how to make bicarbonate of soda.’”

Olivetti’s attitude toward design was so influential that it engendered a complete redesign of one the biggest computing companies. IBM redesigned their own Madison Avenue showroom to be sleeker, more streamlined, and to bring the public right up to the computer. Like Olivetti, Watson also turned the showrooms into live demonstrations. Companies could purchase computer time at any IBM showroom and passersby could witness the act of computing in real time.

Following the appointment of Eliot Noyes as director of design, IBM was redesigned at all scales. Noyes decided that it should present itself to the world with the concept of total design. This meant not only bringing in avant-garde architects to design their showrooms, headquarters, and factories, but like Sottsass had done with the ELEA 9003, treat computing components as designer elements. Eero Saarinen’s design for a manufacturing and training facility in Rochester, Minnesota, for example, can clearly be linked to the design of components for the IBM 1401 system. The stripped down, miesian volumes that Saarinen had designed for their Rochester campus, shrank down and became the tape cabinets for their line of mainframes. Sharp colors and crisp lines turned the sterile white rooms, into fashionable, mod spaces that Kubrick himself would have been proud of.

During this time, computing was communicated to the public in a few different ways: in designer showrooms like IBM’s Madison Avenue or Olivetti’s 5th ave showroom and in advertisements in contemporary living and business magazines. But with these images came a strong message not only of what computation was but also who it was for. Though women had been instrumental in the development of computing, they were not depicted alongside computers as their creators. Women computer scientists were often mistaken for models or not represented at all. Promotional images put out by IBM tended to show men standing, women sitting, exemplifying Banham’s point about the computer being primarily for replacing your female secretary. Just as the Case Study houses required a specific lifestyle image to go with them, the scaled down architectonics of the mainframe, teletype, and storage cabinets required a typical business scenario: the suited white man with his attractive secretary. In the world of computing, secretaries took notes and men did the tech-savvy work. Men and Women of color are rarely present, and in the cases where they are, they are clearly in subservient positions. Following IBM’s lead, other companies began treating their mainframe modules as designer office objects. Advertisements and brochures featuring tape cabinets and teletypes in front of sleek Saarinen-esque buildings communicated a sense of class, as if the computer, though as big as an armoire, could be a fashion accessory. As Banham puts it, “the kind of computers that Ministries, nationalized industries and big business are now installing tend to be keenly styled, Mod and generally with it.”

But we cannot forget that to be “with it” in this period meant to adhere to specific gender roles. The secretary trope recurs over and over again, through the rest of the 20th century. The feminization of the computer is a well rehearsed trope that dates back to Howard Aiken at the Harvard Mark I lab, where he insisted that computers ought to be named like ships. This is certainly the case in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also resonates today in the feminization of GPS devices and personal assistants.

By the time Dr. Strangelove hit theaters in 1964, the public had already been exposed to IBM and Olivetti magazine ads and showrooms. It became evident that design was a way to mitigate the fears of global annihilation associated with the Cold War. Spaces related to computation needed to appeal to a broader public and be less reminiscent of bunkers and military bases. This was primarily achieved by blending the coolness of high design with the contemporary lifestyle of stylized gender roles that recalled the Kennedys, Frank Sinatra, and James Bond. But in examining this period, we must remember that, as Beatriz Colomina states in Sexuality and Space, “The politics of space are always sexual, even if space is central to the mechanisms of the erasure of sexuality.” Computers did not need to be named after women. And IBM, having been one of the first companies to produce a company-wide statement on diversity could have pushed the boundaries of computing lifestyles. But they didn’t. Just like The Jetsons projected a female identity to their robot servant, Rosie, computing companies rode the status quo, resorting to the old adage that “sex sells.” And if, as Daniel J. Boorstin claimed, “advertising is the characteristic rhetoric of democracy” then the images peddled by corporations play a central role in the development of culture and the perception of technology. While computation was designed by engineers and idealists, it was sold by advertisers and marketing specialists. Thus, the image of computation was in reality the amalgam of a campaign to make the computer accessible, stylish, cool, feminine, and subservient to man.