[SIGCIS-Members] 1950s TV show portrayed computers with minmal silliness

McMillan, William W william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu
Wed Jun 24 14:19:39 PDT 2015

There has been discussion on the list about how computers have been portrayed in movies and other media from the 1950s.  I wanted to let you know about an American TV show from that era that did a surprisingly good job of presenting the possibilities for computing, basing ideas on real work in the field.

The show was Science Fiction Theatre, hosted by Truman Bradley (available on Amazon for 30-some USD).  It ran 1955-1956 and based stories on real science.  In fact, each episode begins with an instructional demo of a scientific principle.

One episode that centers on computing is "Survival in Box Canyon."  A computer predicts weather to inform decisions about an above-ground nuclear test (ah, those were the days, my friends).  A scientist flying his own plane in for the test has to bail out, and the computer is used to predict where he drifted on the way down.  Regarding weather prediction, the host explains that this will improve greatly once we have weather satellites in orbit.

Another episode is "Dr. Robot."  A research group is working on machine translation, and an engineer with a sick wife uses the computer to predict the chances of success if she has surgery.  Eniac and Univac are mentioned.

Computers appear in other episodes as well.

The whole series is great fun, filled with fabulous old-tech porn.  Tape drives to die for!

If you're interested in the place of computing in our culture and imagination, you might want to take a look

Of course, the show is entertainment, and takes liberties with scientific ideas, but overall, is surprisingly thoughtful for a TV show.


PS: For those interested in aviation, the other hero in the "Box Canyon" episode is the Civil Air Patrol, a uniformed, civilian service in the U.S. that mainly helps in search and rescue operations.

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