Retrotechtacular: The Incredible Machine

They just don’t write promotional film scripts like they used to: “These men are design engineers. They are about to engage a new breed of computer, called Graphic 1, in a dialogue that will test the ingenuity of both men and machine.”

This video (embedded below) from Bell Labs in 1968 demonstrates the state of the art in “computer graphics” as the narrator calls it, with obvious quotation marks in his inflection. The movie ranges from circuit layout, to animations, to voice synthesis, hitting the high points of the technology at the time. The soundtrack, produced on their computers, naturally, is pure Jetsons.

Highlights are the singing “Daisy Bell” at 9:05, which inspired Stanley Kubrick to play a glitchy version of the track as Dave is pulling Hal 9000’s brains out, symbolically regressing backwards through a history of computer voice synthesis which at that point in time was the present. (Whoah!)

mpv-shot0007Anyway, we think it’s great to look back at these things and realize how simultaneously similar and different the early days of our modern technology were. One thread they got wrong was thinking that physically modelling the inner ear would help with speech synthesis — all you have to do is make the right sounds. But one thing they got right was the all-in-one drag-and-drop circuit simulation application shown in the beginning. They had some really functional GUIs back then, considering the tech.

And that reminds us that we wanted to work on integrating SPICE modelling into our circuit design flow. You know, to catch up with the late 1960’s.

Thanks [Simon] for the trip down (someone else’s) memory lane.

21 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Incredible Machine

  1. Just to be clear, Kubrick did not “play a glitchy version of the track” towards the ending of 2001. While the computer at Bell Labs did inspire Kubrick and/or Clarke to put the sequence into the movie, the actual recording itself is never used: What’s used in 2001: A Space Odyssey is simply a progressively-slowed-down recording of Douglas Rain, HAL’s voice actor, singing Daisy Bell.

  2. I found it interesting when the guy talked about making a movie while sitting in the park. It’s funny how we now take that sort of thing for granted these days, and yet portable computers powerful enough to do things like that were a very recent innovation.
    We have computers the size of thin decks of cards that are many thousands of times more powerful than the mainframes occupying whole buildings when this film was made that we can carry around in our pockets. We live in amazing times indeed.

    1. This reminded me of “Space Race”, an episode of the new NBC series “Timeless” I watched just last week, in which one of the time trevelling protagonists have to contain himself when hearing a NASA technician brag about the mainframe having 2 megabytes and programs only needing 10 minutes to load.
      THOSE were engineers, putting people on the Moon with so little.

    1. Bell Labs brought us lots. They brought us Unix, for one (but also brought us the infamous BSD lawsuit). It’s such a shame that it was the child of AT&T, which in its day was every bit the anti-competitive robber barron outfit Standard Oil ever was.

  3. It was a genuine joy6 to watch that! I thought the Doug Engelbart demonstration of the NLS was impressive! There really were some forward thinkers working on the technology back then, and I’m glad they pushed as hard as they did! The GUI based circuit design/sim was a particularly impressive feature! I had no idea that’d even achieved that back then!

  4. Around 5 minutes in, it says “man and his world” (repeated in French and German. That was the theme for Expo 67 in Montreal. I wonder if that part was produced for an exhibit at Expo? I don’t remember it, but then again, that was almost 50 years ago.

  5. I remember the graphics on the 1951 MIT Whirlwind I. A friend of mine, Don Aronson (later of U Minn), was able to make a collection of various-sized circles show Mickey Mouse playing (one-sided) ping-pong. Whirlwind took up a couple of floors in a small building.

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