A Short History of Computers in the Movies: Panel Lights, Spinning Tapes, and Lab Coats
Test and Monitor | Posted December 23, 2013

The big screen has always tried to keep step with technology… usually unsuccessfully. Let's look at how the film industry has treated computing.

The always-reliable Wikipedia states: “Burroughs B205 hardware has appeared as props in many Hollywood television and film productions from the 1960s onwards,” so I guess the B205s in The Night the World Exploded (a 1957 seismic disaster flop) and Angry Red Planet (a 1959 monsters-on-Mars disaster) were illusions.

Big Iron on the Big Screen

Early movies reflected the computer technology available at the time – usually with spinning tape drives and blinking lights.

UCLA installed a GE differential analyzer –  a mechanical analogue computer designed to solve differential equations by integration, using wheel-and-disc mechanisms – in 1947. It didn’t take long for one to get into film: In 1950 we saw it calculate the trajectory of the moon rocket in Destination Moon. The very next year it was employed to confirm the course of Bellus/Zyra and hence predict the end of the world in When Worlds Collide. Later, the differential analyzer is used to translate intercepted alien messages and so we learn of their plot to invade our planet in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). The first two of these might have been within the analyzer's capabilities; the translation certainly wasn't.

1957 brought us the Remington Rand UNIVAC in The Invisible Boy, a disjoint film in which a boy and a robot (Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet [1956]) save the world from a super computer, as well as Desk Set, a prescient Spencer Tracy – Katherine Hepburn lark about an IBM installation in a reference library.

Desk Set reminds me of the programming problems of Healthcare.gov:

Once the computer (EMARAC – the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator) is finally introduced, Hepburn and her staff receive pink slips on the very first payday, courtesy of another Emarac that has been installed in the payroll department. In the climactic scene, when Sumner (Spencer Tracy) visits the research department to see how the new computer is working out, all hell is breaking loose. The research department is being deluged with phone calls that the new female and anal retentive operator of Emarac can not process accurately. When she feeds the machine a question as to whether the King of the Watusis drives a car, the machine can only spit out a movie review of King Solomon's Mines, which included the keyword “Watusi.”

Robots aren't computers, I guess. But the earliest notable one must be the “False Maria” in Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis.

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) introduced audiences to the Arma Torpedo Data Computer, an electromechanical analog computer used to calculate torpedo firing solutions during World War II. It was later patented (in 1962) by the BOSCH ARMA CORP, as a “Torpedo intercept calculating apparatus.” In the film, Clark Gable employs it in wreaking revenge on the vessel that had sunk his previous command.

So, by 1960 (when a B205 “starred” in the truly vapid Sex Kittens Go to College – along with Mamie Van Doren, Tuesday Weld, and Mijanou Bardot, Brigitte's baby sister) we had viewed equipment made by Bosch Arma, Burroughs, GE, IBM, and Remington Rand. In Sex Kittens, a Westinghouse robot (“Sam Thinko”) selects Van Doren to head the college's Science Department.

Unfortunately, computers were customarily mere background, not useful tools to Hollywood. Thus, Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick's 1964 masterpiece, shows us Peter Sellers in front of a full IBM 7090/94 installation.

Batman: The Movie and Fantastic Voyage (both 1966) revert to the archaic Burroughs B205, though Fantastic Voyage also shows an IBM AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central. At 250 tons for each installation (there were about two dozen) the AN/FSQ-7 was the largest computer ever built, with 60,000 vacuum tubes and a requirement of 3 megawatts of power to perform 75,000 ips for regional radar centers. The last IBM AN/FSQ-7, at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, was demolished in February 1984. A large number of FSQ-7 components are on exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

In 1967 Hollywood discovered the Honeywell 200, which appears in both Billion Dollar Brain and in Casino Royale. Billion Dollar Brain is a first-rate Len Deighton thriller. This first Casino Royale is a bizarre, frequently funny, mix of the Pythons, Woody Allen, and a vague tinge of Ian Fleming, created by 10 writers and six directors.

Hot Millions (1968) features Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith in a comic film about an embezzler who codes the computer to send him checks. Interestingly, the computers seen are an English Electric System 4 and a LEO III. (Ustinov remarks of the LEO: “I don't think they get as much fun out of life as we do!”) How to make a Doll (also 1968) shows an IBM 360, but all the other films that year are stuck with the Honeywell 200 or the AN/FSQ-7.

1969 brought us The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, arguably Disney's worst film, with an antique B205, and Marooned, a space thriller in which three astronauts are stuck in orbit with a piece of an IBM 1600 on the wall of the space station and a Control Data Corporation (CDC) 6600 in the NASA control room on earth.

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) employs an IBM 1620, but City Beneath the Sea (1971) features computer over-kill: B205s in the city's control room and in the research center; an AN/FSQ-7 in the control room; and a bank of SDS Sigma-7 tape drives and a console in the Admiral's office.

Other 1971 films (Earth II, Paper Man, Sweet, Sweet Rachel, and THX) show us the usual B205s, H200, IBM 360, and AN/FSQ-7. Surprisingly, in Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory, a Siemens 4004 is employed to search out the remaining golden tickets.

Siemens 4004-1

To me, 1972 is notable in movies only for The Stone Tape, a BBC made-for-TV horror/SF film in which the lovely Jane Asher tries to analyze the “ghost” using a DEC PDP-8/F (we even see her typing on a DECwriter). Woody Allen shows us an AN/FSQ-7 as the “control center” of a man's brain in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask. The next year (1973), he uses the same panels in the robot repair lab in Sleeper.

Microcomputers… eventually

At this point in history, a lot was going on in computer development. Unfortunately, where Hollywood and its British and European equivalents were concerned, computers meant flashing lights and tape drives – although some of the mainframe brands changed.

1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Invasion of the Bee Girls (don't ask), and Westworld all use AN/FSQ-7s. The Doll Squad and Girl Most Likely To... employ IBM 360s, while Call to Danger and The Thief Who Came to Dinner advanced to IBM 370s (despite the fact that the hero of the latter film used to work for CDC!). In Westworld, the computer controls the robots; in Girl, the IBM 360 keeps college records and Ed Asner reads text from an IBM punch card.

In The Mad Bomber, a CDC 3100 is used to profile the bomber, while in Soylent Green a CDC 6600 lurks in the background. Though over-long (over three hours), Werner Fassbinder's Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) patriotically employs a Siemens 4004.

The Towering Inferno in 1974 falls back to the Burroughs B205 and AN/FSQ-7 combo, though Scaramanga's power generation scheme in Man with the Golden Gun is controlled by an ICT 1301.

The only item of interest in 1975 – movie-computerwise – is the use of a DEC PDP-8E in Three Days of the Condor, a CIA thriller. In 1976, Futureworld emulates Westworld in its use of the AN/FSQ-7 while Pink Panther Strikes Again employs the ICT 1301 from Golden Gun to control the doomsday machine. In 1977, The Brain Machine involves an IBM 360 and both Capricorn One and Damnation Alley (the latter much changed from the novella by Roger Zelazny) fall back on AN/FSQ-7 panels.

The next year (1978), The Cat from Outer Space, The Swarm, and The Time Machine all employ AN/FSQ-7s, though (gosh!) we can see B205 tape drives in The Swarm and both an SDS Sigma-7 and a UNIVAC 1110 in the remake of The Time Machine.

The Commodore PET 2001 first shipped in October 1977, so it's notable that we see one in A Man, a Woman, and a Bank (1979), while The Ultimate Impostor falls back upon a Sigma-7 to upload memory into a spy's brain.

Both Brave New World and Airplane! confirm that the now trite AN/FSQ-7 is still with us, but by early 1980 the Commodore PET 2001 is visible in Incubo Sulla Città Contaminata (Nightmare City) where we find radioactive, blood-sucking zombies, slicing and dicing their way across Italy. (Sounds a lot like your last code review, doesn’t it?)

IBM OS/2 fans may appreciate its big moment on the screen in 1995’s Bond flick Goldeneye. Though the OS/2 Warp logo is clearly visible, it’s on the computer screen of the bad guy. Oops.

Though the last AN/FSQ-7 was decommissioned nearly 30 years ago, Hollywood's fascination with those panels extended for decades after Airplane! The second (The Spy who Shagged Me, 1999) and third (Goldmember, 2002) Austin Powers films contain panel views – as well as a B205 in Spy and a Powerbook G4 in Goldmember. The most recent use of the AN/FSQ-7 I know of is in 2003's Return to the Batcave, but it is shown on a 1960s TV set.

Mel Brooks uses the panels in both Spaceballs (1987) and in Get Smart, Again! (1989). Bizarrely, this “secret” SAGE computer is found on the abandoned Russian research vessel in Virus (1999), one of my favorite film anomalies.

The Era of Product Placement

In recent years, the movie industry appears to have incorporated increasing Apple use. For instance, in 2006 the formulaic teen comedy John Tucker Must Die contains a Powerbook G4, a Power Mac G5 and an iBook G5; Night at the Museum has both a G3 and a G5; and The Devil Wears Prada shows us both a G5 and a MacBook Pro.

On the other hand, the Italian coming-of-age in the '80s teen comedy, Notte Prima Degli Esami (The Night Before Exams), features a Commodore 64 and an Amiga 2000. Read it and weep, a Disney made-for-TV film, has a Gateway CX 210 (though it might be an M 275). But Apple computers certainly dominated 2006.

2007's spy thriller Breach is one of under a half-dozen films containing a Palm III while Tropa de Elite [Elite Squad] features the Brazilian Prologica CP500 in a violent pseudo-documentary. The satirical flop Epic Movie shows a Powerbook G4 and the kid-flick The Last Mimzy (based on Lewis Padgett's short story, “Mimsy were the borogoves,” from Astounding Science Fiction, February 1943) has an iMac G5. Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth in the Bruce Willis series, is chock-full of improbable action stunts as well as showing us a Nokia 700 and a Nokia 9300. (I've seen only a few other Nokia shots.)

In 2008's quasi-documentary Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, we see a Siemens 4004 and in Operation: Zeitsturm, a time-machine/Nazi bizarrie, there are several incongruous Commodore computers. M's assistant in Quantum of Solace employs a Sony Vaio UX to track 007. These aside, Apple ruled the year's films.

The Box, based on a Richard Matheson story, was an interesting 2009 movie with an HP 9830, and three DECs: a PDP-8, an 11/34, and a 12. Flickan Som Lekte Med Elden (The Girl Who Played With Fire), based on the Steig Larsson novel, contains a Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 and several Apple systems. Men Som Hattar Kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), also based on a Larsson novel, has a Macbook Pro.

There's a Vaio in Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but  nothing else worth saying about a poor comedy that's supposed to be set in New Jersey, yet is clearly the Burlington Mall in suburban Boston. Oh, and another Vaio in Pink Panther 2. Steve Martin should have let Peter Sellers be. There are Apples in The Proposal and in The Stepfather. Ho-hum.

In 2010 a rogue CIA agent uses a Thinkpad in The Expendables and there's an Alienware game in Hot Tub Time Machine, which is barely better than it sounds. A Panasonic Toughbook makes an appearance in Hunt to Kill and an autistic savant uses an Amiga 4000 to save the earth from a gravitational anomaly in Quantum Apocalypse. Everyone else in 2010 has a Mac. And Apples are all over in 2011, too, even in Sydney, Australia, where an iMac sits on Lucy's boss’s desk and the employment agency uses a Macbook Pro in Sleeping Beauty.

There's an iMac, too, in the Danish Over Kanten (Over the Edge) in 2012, a truly Hitchcockian psychological thriller; and there are more Apples than I could count in iSteve (2013) a tender, yet comic tribute to Steve Jobs.

But, by and large, for Hollywood, Scandinavia and Australia, computers are Macs.

I worry about the movie flood of tablet computers in the offing.

See also:

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