© @craigwardscott

Supercomputers Week: The Old Man (September 14 Night Thread)

In the first years of the 1950s, a team of scientists led by Nicholas Metropolis, constructed the MANIAC – Mathematical Analyser Numerical Integrator and Computer. It was gigantic and weighed almost a thousand pounds. It’s programmers included several notable women mathematicians and engineers, such as Mary Tsingou, Klara Dan von Neumann, and Marjorie Devaney.

The vacuum-tubed machine was featured in the 1953 atomic horror film The Magnetic Monster, perhaps to make the movie feel more “cutting edge” and disguise its lousy plot and acting. And so, the practical designs of reality became the visual language of speculative cinema. Supercomputers might be capable of taking over the world, or at least destroying it, but they were still the size of a house, with innards festooned with miles of copper cables, and decorated with innumerable esoteric flappers and clickers.

Ten years later the fantasies of “smart” computers would be thoroughly explored in numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone. They were usually portrayed with the common trope of existential menace, but not so in “The Old Man in the Cave”.

In a post-apocalypse shanty town, the ragged and starving survivors rebel against the “Old Man”, the supercomputer who warns them from consuming certain foods. They destroy the machine and destroy themselves, literally poisoned by their own ignorance.

I like this design, as archaic and clunky as it appears to modern eyes. It’s a nice twist when the wise benefactor is revealed to be a hunk of sheet metal and incandescent light bulbs.

© @craigwardscott

Have a good night and remember to take care of yourselves, everyone!