Technology through the lens of art: a recent book looks at computer graphics, transistor graphics, and more

Inside the Machine cover (from Norton site)

In Inside the Machine, published in August, cultural historian Megan Prelinger surveys the visual presentation of advances in electronics. To study how increasingly abstract developments were given tangible form in order to convey them to businesses, workers in the field, and the general public is an ingenious and provocative idea. But reading the book provides a mixed experience.

Anyone who grew up learning about the scientific and technical developments she chronicles in her text is likely to trip repeatedly over her descriptions, and a reader who doesn’t already know may come away misinformed or confused. A few examples: Prelinger speaks of vacuum tubes “sorting” electrons; a better term would be controlling or modulating their flow. She refers more than once to three basic forces that govern all matter; she labels one of them “magnetism” and calls another “the nuclear force.” This may be her attempt at a convenient simplification, but physics recognizes four fundamental forces—the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity. She speaks once or twice of radar astronomy when she means radio astronomy. She seems unclear on a few aspects of computers and programming. She gives the impression that the jet engine and the jet-propelled airplane were invented in the U.S.A.—“Bell Aircraft had built the first jet in 1942 (with engines by General Electric)”—which as far as I can tell is thoroughly incorrect. She reports “the loss of all of the Ranger spacecraft to computer and navigational failures,” but the final three missions in that series succeeded. She refers to the prospect of “quark computing” instead of quantum computing. (For the record, I read the published version of the book, not an advance galley.)

And yet the book’s bountiful illustrations are wondrous, almost flashback-inducing for anyone whose experience goes back very far. They’re drawn from such sources as promotional brochures, the catalogues of component makers, and ads as well as editorial art from trade and general-interest publications such as Electronics magazine, Scientific American, and the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers. Their dates of origin range from the 1910s to the mid-70s, though they’re drawn mainly from the 40s through the 60s. Prelinger’s overall subject categories cover vacuum tubes including cathode-ray tubes, crystals, transistors, circuit boards, computers, avionics and space electronics, and bionics. In the artwork, one finds hands and heads, sinuous lyrical swoops, landscapes of circuit symbols, jazzy rhythmic patterns, colors both muted and bold, dots and bars and grids… To my eye, virtually none of it is kitschy (contrary to one published review), and some of it is still vivid and fresh enough that it’d look good on a wall today. (See for yourself. Five of the book’s illustrations are reproduced in a W. W. Norton Tumblr post, and a handful of others are offered in a Fast Company Design post.)

In her commentary, Prelinger now and then serves up bits of jargon, but she’s almost uniformly clear and insightful. She elucidates stylistic influences from such sources as constructivism, surrealism, collage, and the Bauhaus. Sometimes Prelinger is able to identify the particular graphic artists who created these works, figures such as Willi Baum, Herbert Bayer, Jacqueline Casey, and Raul Mina Mora; a few were allowed to sign their work, and company archives preserve the names of others. Though she’s good at tracing themes and motifs, she’s at her best, I think, in her readings of particular illustrations. In discussing a 1961 ad for the Burroughs B 5000 computer, for instance, she combines an account of the company’s position in the mainframe industry and some technical details of the B 5000’s development with an elucidation of the ad’s graphical components, in which she finds a “lacy curtain” of numbers and dot patterns in front of a “parted black drape,” behind which is the computer itself. She says, “The image both encloses and reveals the machine,” and “The result is a form of industrial theater.” Descriptions like this help one more fully to see and understand what one is looking at in the artwork.

The visual system makes up a substantial part of the human brain, and as ancient cave paintings suggest, our grasp of the world has always relied on our ability to represent it graphically. Yet the 20th century may be the first we could call the age of the image, as it was also the beginning of the electronic age. Despite its missteps, Prelinger’s act of visual archaeology in this book does a service to both.

(This is a lightly revised version of a review originally posted at Goodreads.)

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