“A lively show with a robot as its star” Posted March 20, 2015 by Daniel Ostroff

There were a lot of “firsts” in the achievements of Charles and Ray Eames.

Among them, the first mass-produced product made of molded plywood with compound curves—the Eames leg splint; the first mass-produced molded plastic chair; and the first—and according to many, the only Case Study House to truly follow the principles of the Case Study House program, which was to build affordable housing using a method that could be reproduced on a large scale.

So, it’s not surprising that many of Charles and Ray’s exhibitions were also “firsts.”

A Computer Perspective marked the first comprehensive museum exhibition to tackle the history of computers. The show opened at the IBM Exhibition Center in New York City in 1971, roughly the same time that Bill Gates enrolled at Harvard and that Steve jobs graduated from high school. It traveled to various venues until 1975.

Here and in the gallery below are images from a beautiful handout for visitors to this show, which was designed and produced by the Eames Office.

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When A Computer Perspective first opened, award-winning author and architecture critic, Walter McQuade, wrote a review for Life magazine with the headline: “A lively show with a robot as its star.”  Here are some excerpts from his review.

…the canniest and most successful exhibition on computers ever devised. . . . Here, [Charles Eames] and his collaborators reach back into the history and prehistory of computers to show how and why calculating machines came about.

Most of the story evolves on a gigantic, 48-foot, three-dimensional wall tapestry. Woven into it are hundreds of souvenirs from 1890 to 1950, the computer’s gestation period. Here are artifacts, documents and photographs dramatizing six decades of striving, when information began to explode on-the world and nobody knew quite what to do with the fallout. …

The wall closes with the birth of UNIVAC in 1950. Since then the computer has progressed so fast, with computers working on their own evolution, that the souvenirs would just be print-out sheets. But Eames demonstrates with models and film displays that if this be witchcraft, there are no witches involved–just the 350,000 full-time programmers (in the U.S. alone) and about two million other nonwitches who operate the machines; in a multiple, rapid-fire slidefilm, they chew gum, scratch themselves, dye their hair and do their work.

The stroller [a visitor to the exhibition] steps off the sidewalk and into the IBM display room on 57th Street in Manhattan and approaches one of four shiny input typewriters of an IBM System 360 computer. The game is “20 Questions.” The computer “thinks up” one of its 12 stock mystery words, like “duck,” “orange,” “cloud,” “helium,” “knowledge.” The stroller has 20 chances to guess…and if, perhaps, the mystery word is “knowledge,” the typed conversation could start like this:

Stroller: “Does it grow?”

Computer: “To answer that question might be misleading.”

Stroller: “Can I eat it? Is it edible?”

Computer: “Only as food for thought.”

Stroller: “Do computers have it?”

 Computer: “Strictly speaking, no.”

Interacting personally with computers without having to know a special programming language is now a part of our lives that we take for granted, but it wasn’t common when the Eameses offered this experience in 1971. If one considers (or remembers) those early days of difficult-to-master punchcards and intimidating large-scale computers, it becomes clear just how important it was that Charles and Ray added an element of fun to the experience of learning about them.

McQuade found this aspect of the show particularly noteworthy. He highlighted it at the end of his review, writing:

And when the stroller, no warlock himself, wanders in off the street with his family (it’s a great show for kids) and confronts the System 360, he is well advised to watch his language and frame his questions well. Eames’s finale to the exhibition can be fairly cheeky. System 360, Model 40, is not above printing out, in response to a muddled thought: “Your grammar has me stumped.”

Charles and Ray anticipated personal and responsive computer interactions in the future, which were rare then, but are now ubiquitious in almost everything that we do, from checking our bags at the airport to asking Suri for resturant recommendations on our iPhones.

No “witch work” there, as McQuade noted, but rather the ever-new, ever-timeless Eames work.

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