The Eames, IBM, and the Dawn of Computing
January 2, 2012
What do you do if you’re IBM in the 1950s and need to market your behemoth computing machine to a conservative public? Commission a 10-minute informative short to designers Charles and Ray Eames, of course! “The Information Machine” was the result of a unique collaboration that aimed at naturalizing the computer within the context of civilization’s intellectual history and American consumerism–no easy feat.
IBM wanted to present a positivist message to underlie its machines and strategically chose the 1958 Brussels’ World’s Fair–which, coincidentally, also saw the experimental Philips Pavilion/video installation by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis–to debut the Eames’ film. Using scratchy, Peanuts-esque animation, the Eames construct a tautological schema charting the origin and development of human thought processes, namely abstraction and simulation. A primitive man, the first “artist,” walks the earth observing natural forms and storing their visual properties in a “memory bank” which supplies the data for entire systems of logic. It’s a dramatic, if somewhat comical leap from the first sail boat (tree + shell + spider web = mast + hull + sail, duh.) to the cybernetic revolution and the preeminence of the computer–with a brief detour through the evolution of architectural forms, from the post-and-lintel Greek temple up through the geodesic dome. Interesting is how the Eames render physical the information-bearing processes whose material dimensions we generally tend to marginalize, if not entirely ignore. “This is information,” the narrator intones over a backdrop of moving mechanical parts, shuffling punch cards, and dancing encoded lights.