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Living Computer Museum brings vintage computers to film and television

6/29/2015 : Aaron Peplowski

Living Computer Museum brings vintage computers to film and television

6/29/2015 : Aaron Peplowski

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.