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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The monoliths: 17 supercomputers from the ’60s

The IBM System 360 in Mad Men
The IBM System 360 in Mad Men

1. The IBM System 360, Mad Men: “The Monolith” (2014)
The newest hire at Sterling Cooper & Partners in 1969 is a room-sized supercomputer that has, to date, displaced the creative team and driven Michael Ginsberg to a psychotic break. As it turns out, the supercomputer is a staple of ’60s fiction, from science fiction, comic books, and television. The advent of IBM’s 360 in 1964 changed computing entirely, making it possible for private companies to showcase the cutting-edge in technology in their offices. It also raised its own set of anxieties and fears. Though the IBM 360 is not a supercomputer that went on to plot against humankind, like some of the others on this list, the characters in Mad Men are threatened by its presence. Ginsberg cites “the hum,” while Don Draper observes that the computer’s displacement of creative isn’t symbolic: “It’s quite literal.” Lou and Cutler meet in the computer room to have private conversations that can be masked by the whir of the machine. And chillingly, it exhorts you to “THINK,” across the top of a panel. It may not be sinister, but it’s certainly unsettling. Unlike the rest of these entries, Mad Men’s supercomputer looks to the past, not to the future. And in the episode’s direction, it deliberately recalls a classic that looked ahead 40 years…


2. HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
HAL 9000 is the quintessential, seminal supercomputer—and 2001 is the quintessential, seminal rendering of human anxiety over these machines in the ’60s. “The Monolith” deliberately recalled 2001’s direction, and the fear of a computer taking over. HAL stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer aboard the Discovery One, a spaceship with astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole aboard. Of course, HAL isn’t the monolith—or at least, not monolith-shaped. Theories abound as to HAL’s motives in 2001—which are explained in conflicting ways in Arthur C. Clarke’s series of novels, as well as purely in Stanley Kubrick’s films—but in part, the theories exist because HAL as a computer-character is so fascinating. Douglas Rain voiced the supercomputer, and his soft, sibilant, almost-warm conversational style is at great odds with the computer’s power and cold logic.

3. Alpha 60, Alphaville (1965)
Alpha 60 is the sentient supercomputer that runs Alphaville—a noirish dystopia where love and self-expression are outlawed. This omnipresent thinking machine was created by a certain Professor Von Braun (and, by extension, director Jean-Luc Godard), and proves to be as self-importantly philosophical as it is madly tyrannical. “Time is the substance of which I am made,” Alpha 60 intones, in gravelly robot French, “Time is a river which carries me along. But I am time. It’s a tiger, tearing me apart; but I am the tiger.” Alphaville supposedly occurs in a future, distant galaxy, but it sure looks a lot like an office building in downtown Trenton in the mid-’60s. Alpha 60, when it’s portrayed at all, is represented by blocky mainframes furiously bleeping and blooping. But Godard wasn’t so much interested in making it look like the future as making it feel like one—disorienting and alien, yet familiar. Fortunately for humanity and the film’s hero, Lemmy Caution, Alpha 60 proves vulnerable to that bane of dictator AIs everywhere—poetry.

4. The Old Man in the Cave, The Twilight Zone: “The Old Man In The Cave” (1963)
5. Agnes, The Twilight Zone: “From Agnes—With Love” (1964)
6. X109-B14, The Twilight Zone: “The Brain Center At Whipple’s” (1964)
During its last and sourest season, The Twilight Zone seized upon supercomputers as go-to avatars for technophobic ranting, conceiving no less than three episodes around their punch-card prophecies of doom. Actually, in “The Old Man In The Cave,” the bucket of bolts is right—don’t eat that contaminated food, stupid humans!—but it’s awfully sinister-looking, and just how did the Earth get into this post-apocalyptic state, anyhow, hmmm? Valentine’s Day ’64’s bleeping-blooping bonbon “From Agnes—With Love” has a rocket-science computer sabotaging the love life of its dweeby programmer (Wally Cox), almost-but-not-quite adding The Twilight Zone to the long list of ’60s shows to trot out the computer-dating-gone-haywire plot. And “The Brain Center At Whipple’s” is a hysterical finger-wag against factory mechanization, which becomes really just too much when—gasp!—even management can be replaced by a “brain machine.” Creator Rod Serling’s once-rich dialogue had by that time become prolix and monotonous, due in part to his switch from typewriter to Dictaphone, so it’s little wonder he thought the machines were doing him in. They were.

7. AM, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” (1967)
Like many of these examples, the supercomputer antagonist of this brief 1967 short story by Harlan Ellison is created in response to escalating Cold War paranoia. And similarly, we dumb humans are hoisted with our own petard but good when AM (which stands, consecutively, for “Allied Mastercomputer,” “Adaptive Manipulator,” and finally “Aggressive Menace”) absorbs its Russian and Chinese counterparts, exterminates all but five humans on Earth, and spends the next century devising elaborately vicious physical and mental tortures for them. It’s less a warning about the dangers of over-reliance on technology and more an excuse for Ellison to indulge his opulent, Grand Guignol, body-horror fantasies. AM makes his tragically immortal victims eat worms, flee from huge monsters, and have joyless sex for its diversion—when it’s not mangling their bodies into unrecognizable shapes. After a brutal mind-meld, our protagonist Ted determines that AM went floridly bonkers because, while humans accidentally created its sentience, they’d neglected to imagine what an omnipotent machine without a soul might find amusing. 


8. M-5, Star Trek: “The Ultimate Computer” (1968)
The U.S.S. Enterprise has a habit of finding planets secretly run by supercomputer gods, but “The Ultimate Computer” stands apart for being the one mad supercomputer designed by Starfleet itself. The M-5 is designed to run a ship without any human assistance, and the Enterprise is selected to be its guinea pig. Being state-of-the-art 23rd-century technology, this supercomputer isn’t the size of a room. It’s more like a bulky desk with a tilted monitor on top. The only problem is that its creator’s engrams are mapped into its programming; it responds to stress like a human would. Almost as soon as it’s installed, M-5 starts trying to protect itself—turning off life support for unused areas, erecting a force-field defense around itself, and drawing power directly from the ship’s engines. And then it starts eliminating threats—other Starfleet ships—in what’s supposed to be a drill. Like much contemporaneous sci-fi, “The Ultimate Computer” hinges on runaway weaponry. But it’s really more of a Frankenstein update with a computer in place of the monster. It’s alive, yes, but the real danger: It never learned Asimov’s laws of robotics!

9. Ultron, The Avengers (1968)
One of the joys of Silver Age comics is how delighted they are to make any potential subtext quite obvious text. So when the brilliant scientist Hank Pym—a.k.a. Ant-Man, a.k.a. Goliath, a.k.a. Yellowjacket—attempts to develop artificial life and accidentally develops the supervillain Ultron, The Avengers doesn’t hesitate to explain what anxieties the story springs from. Pym’s partner The Wasp declares it “a Frankenstein’s monster… turning on its own creator!” while Pym himself notes the Oedipal tinge of his creation’s attempts to supplant what it calls “Daddy.” The fear behind Ultron is that artificial intelligence could develop without ethical constraints—and so quickly that it could potentially overpower its creators. The Avengers has returned to that well multiple times, with Ultron reforming itself decade after decade, building on its Oedipal roots by making Ultron obsessed with The Wasp. The killer AI will also be introduced to the movie-going masses in the upcoming Avengers sequel, where it will be played by James Spader.  

Illustration for article titled The monoliths: 17 supercomputers from the ’60s

10. The Machine, The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis: “Dobie Versus The Machine” (1961)
In one of several thoughtful, semi-serious episodes that contemplated the question of how a young man should chart the course of his life, everyteen Dobie (having received little useful advice from friend, father, or teacher) submits to a battery of psychological tests to determine whether he is best-suited for college, the family business, or something else altogether. The final step is an analysis from a supercomputer. Just before the scientist feeds his punch-card into the blinking, wall-sized computer (cost: $6 million!), Dobie rebels and decides to chart his own course, articulating a down-to-earth manifesto of man-over-motherboard self-determination: “It’s still a machine, and I’m a fella. If anybody tells me what to do, it’s gonna be another fella, not a machine. What I’m after is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I don’t care how smart a machine is, it’ll never understand things like that.” Guess they should have built Steve Austin instead. Teenagers: 1; Supercomputers: 0.


11. Technical Electronic Amplifier Code Handler (TEACH), The Patty Duke Show: “The Genius” (1963)
Subjected to an IQ test at the hands of this cutely named gadget, Brooklyn’s favorite cheery, teenaged imbecile Patty Lane starts punching keys at random and inadvertently Kobayashi Marus the machine—it determines that she’s a genius. Pre-feminism it wasn’t, but at least “The Genius” gave posterity to Paul Lynde as the easily flustered computer programmer. Small by supercomputer standards, the engine-block sized TEACH was “played”—likely in an inspired instance of product placement—by Sperry Rand’s real-life UNIVAC 422, a unit marketed toward schools and one of many significant milestones in the progression toward the personal computer. The footage of UNIVAC 422 contained therein has turned this otherwise forgotten sitcom episode into the object of an occasional internet nerdgasm. Teenagers: 2; Supercomputers: 0.

12. Dexter Riley, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)
Kurt Russell’s Dexter Riley returned in two other films for Disney, but the character got his start here, in which an accident involving a ’60s supercomputer turns Russell’s character into basically a magical being. Dexter attends a tiny college that can’t even afford a computer, and so receives a used one from a rich businessman played by Cesar Romero. Dexter decides to fix up the computer during a thunderstorm, and while in the process of doing this, an accident occurs and melds his mind with the processing power of the computer, which means he’s soon able to read and absorb an encyclopedia in a few minutes or speak languages after reading just one textbook. He’s also amazing at math. (So this really could have been called Microsoft Encarta Wore Tennis Shoes.) Dexter uses his new powers to help his school win the massive cash prize in a TV quiz show, but right before the finals, he loses his abilities because he hits his head. (The team wins anyway, because movies.) But at least he got to be superpowered for a few weeks—because computers are magic.

13. IT, A Wrinkle In Time (1962)
Madeleine L’Engle’s literary masterpiece came out just before supercomputers began to fill enormous, cold rooms in American corporations. Yet it still reflects the cultural fears of losing our sense of humanity to a terrifying groupthink: IT is a large brain that holds people in its thrall, leaving them unable to think for themselves. Meg Murry, her genius younger brother Charles Wallace, and her classmate Calvin O’Keefe journey to the planet Camazotz, where Charles Wallace becomes just another mechanistic automaton being in the grip of IT. Eventually, Meg is able to break IT’s spell on her brother by focusing all her love—the one thing IT doesn’t have—on Charles Wallace, in a heavy-handed metaphor for how we, too, may one day overcome automaton overlords. Unless L’Engle herself tesseracted to the future, it’s just a happy coincidence that IT shares its initials with “information technology.”


14. WOTAN, Doctor Who: “The War Machines” (1966)
A show as proudly humanistic as Doctor Who is always going to be suspicious of the supposed virtues of computers, and that wariness was never more present than in the show’s first decade: As Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor once observed to a companion, “Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.” Any story featuring the Cybermen must deal with the dangers of abdicating emotion in favor of pure, cold reason, so the Doctor has faced his fair share of evil supercomputers. There’s no better example of that particular strain of Doctor Who foe than WOTAN—Will Operating Thought ANalogue, naturally—whom William Hartnell’s First Doctor took on in the 1966 serial “The War Machines.” Designed to serve humanity as an all-knowing central intelligence, WOTAN almost immediately concludes that humans have already reached the limits of their potential. Creating the titular War Machines as its conquering army, WOTAN exerts hypnotic control on all those who come into contact with it. Only the alien Doctor can resist, but even he is terrified by the sheer magnitude of WOTAN’s artificial intelligence, particularly when it is unencumbered by even the slightest shreds of morality or mercy.

15. The Thinker, Logan’s Run (1967)
The novel Logan’s Run, written by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, existed for the better part of a decade before Hollywood got its hands on the property and added, subtracted, and changed around bits of the plot to make the 1976 film starring Michael York. Although there are numerous difference between the movie and the book, one concept that carries over—albeit tweaked somewhat—is that of the Thinker. The Thinker is the supercomputer that tracks the Runners—the members of the population who try to evade the mandatory death sentence that is doled out to everyone at the age of 21. By the time the idea made it to the big screen, an additional nine years of existence had been tacked on everyone’s lifespan and the computer had lost its name, but still maintained control of the planet’s population. It would have been cool if the film had housed the supercomputer in the same location that the novel did, though—the completed Crazy Horse monument in what was South Dakota.  


16. The General, The Prisoner: “The General,” (1967)
No discussion of ’60s-era paranoia is complete without some fierce, stern, and occasionally baffling words from Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner. While the show’s resident supercomputer is the title character of the 1967 episode “The General,” its presence isn’t actually revealed until the final five minutes. Until then, this story is more immediately concerned with the human impact of technology designed to know every fact and answer every question, as the denizens of the Village are subjected to “Speed Learn,” a remarkable new system that can impart three years’ worth of information in three minutes. “Information” is the right word here, because there’s no knowledge or wisdom to be found in the General’s accelerated teachings, only sterile facts and the beginnings of mind control. As a reliably furious Number Six observes, Speed Learn can only turn its students into a row of cabbages—but “knowledgeable cabbages,” a triumphant Number Two retorts. The General’s ultimate defeat is perhaps foolishly simple, as Number Six drives it to self-destruction with an unanswerable one-word question: “Why?” Underwhelming as it might be, this conclusion does cut straight to a crucial theme: Just because it’s possible to create technology as all-knowing as the General, what precisely is the point of unleashing such horrors on humanity?

17. Colossus and Guardian, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Joseph Sargent’s film Colossus: The Forbin Project, based on Dennis Feltham Jones’ 1966 novel, sees a supercomputer put in charge of U.S. defense. Designed to keep the peace, Colossus is housed in a mountain and powered by its own nuclear reactor. Then the Soviets unveil their own version of Colossus named Guardian. Once Colossus and Guardian start communicating, the supercomputers (with nuclear arsenals!) quickly discern that the best way to maintain peace is to forcibly conquer the world themselves. They develop elaborate surveillance systems, and blackmail their puny human servants into carrying out their bidding by launching and detonating missiles where they see fit. Although it reaches back toward robots taking over the planet and forward to the modern panopticon, Colossus: The Forbin Project is essentially Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe run amuck, a paranoid parable about the tremendous might of the superpowers’ military apparatuses and the grave necessity of human oversight.

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