[Humanist] 24.718 images of computing?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Feb 17 07:23:09 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 718.
      Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
            Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

Date: Thu, 17 Feb 2011 06:16:28 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: images of computing?

Sometime in 1948 or the few years following, Shell Oil Company (which
supplied the libricants for IBM machines) took out an advert in the Saturday
Evening Post, an American popular magazine, entitled "Oracle on 57th
Street". The address referred to the IBM World Headquarters, then at the
corner of 57th Street and Madison Avenue, which from 1948 to sometime
between 1952-53 exhibited the IBM Selective Sequence Automatic Calculator
(SSEC) in its front window. Passers-by nicknamed the machine "Poppa". The
advert shows an enormous Sibylline figure sitting atop the building, holding
a long scroll of computer printout. We have abundant evidence to support the
notion that this Sibyl accurately represents computing in the popular
imagination of the time.

Eventually I will track down the issue of the Post in the British Library
and obtain a better image of it than the one I managed to find online. But
meanwhile I would like to know of any other images from the time when people
allowed themselves so spectacularly to dream of what computing had come into
the world to do. I think I have all of the Time Magazine cover-images. Any
others anyone here knows about, please tell me.

Such images are fascinating in their own right. Their significance for us
comes from the fact that since they were published in mass-circulation
venues they were undoubtedly in the homes and hands of (at least American)
academics at the time, being looked at by the children and spouses of
scholars as well as by scholars themselves (in their off moments,
naturally). When you put the professional writings of these scholars up
against the public dreaming, some interesting questions fall out, don't you
think? And when you find some of these scholars accusing others of a lack of
imagination in their uses of computing, these questions gain some force. One
finds such sober figures as Herbert Simon and Allen Newell publishing some
highly imaginative claims (packaged as firm predictions) a few years later,
but in general we were quite an unimaginative lot then. Different now, of

Images and clues to more, please. Comments on all this as well, if you are
so inclined.

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, www.mccarty.org.uk;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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