[SIGCIS-Members] 17th-19th c. exhibitions of computers

Gerard Alberts galberts at science.uva.nl
Tue Mar 18 20:34:36 PDT 2008

Dear Bernard,
What a lovely theme.
Obviously, two strong traditions from the 18th century onwards may inform
your research on 20th century exhibitons of computers. Of course they are
not unrelated.

One tradition is the showing of the spectacular. The 18th century is
filled with spectacular shows of experiment and science. The interesting
extra attraction for automata (including clocks and musical instruments)
and calculating devices is that you will find the spectacular on the
instrument itself: guilt plates, ivory inlay etc
Not only the show presenting the instruments was spectacular, the objects
themselves were showpieces.
Up to this day, you will find few presentations of computers without this
facet of the spectacular.

The other tradition is the claim of the universal.
Look at the 1870's exhibitions in Kensington, 1890s in Munich (cf Dyck's
volume(s) on mathematical models and instruments), the Navier
commemoration of 1914, and you will find the instruments presented in the
context of universal exhibitions. There is a good deal of literature on
the culture of these exhibitions.
"model" and "instrument" are keywords you want to use to enter into the
19th century computing apparatus and its exhibits.
The universality of these exhibitions was connected, but not in a
straightforward way, with the aspirations of universality in science. The
uses of the word come together with automata in RUR, Rossums Universal
Robot. Again, the "obvious" connection may be deceptive here.
The connection with the alledged universality of the computer is too
obvious to mention here.

Best wishes, fruitful search,
Gerard Alberts

> Hi SIGCIS members,
>      I'm doing some research on the 20th century exhibition of
> computers, particularly in the form of automata and televised
> calculating machines.  I'd like to look for some historical
> precedents, though.  Does anyone know of any works discussing the
> exhibition of calculating machines from the 17th through the 19th
> century?  For example, in the 19th century calculating machines were
> sent to at least one World's Fair, and in in the 18th c. von
> Kempelen's chess playing Turk inspired popular speculations and
> exciting about thinking machines, etc.
>      Thanks for your help.
> Bernard
> Bernard Geoghegan
> Doctoral Candidate, Program in Screen Cultures, Northwestern University
> Institute Visitor, Program in Science, Technology and Society,
> Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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