Power Grids

Technology is more than gears and sprockets, transistors and microchips; it also functions as a vision of the future, one that provides the physical means of translating that vision into reality. And because implicit in every technological innovation is a program for improving society, technological change has often inspired Americans to engage in prophecy. Utopians place their faith in the unfolding of technological progress, insisting that it will liberate humanity from drudgery and poverty, make information freely accessible to all, and, one day, usher in the era of Ray Kurzweil’s great, millennial “Singularity”—the melding of humanity and technology. Modern-day Jeremiahs warn that technology will toss workers out of jobs, annihilate privacy, and ultimately prove dehumanizing.

However, amid all this hectic soothsaying, technology’s workings remain invisible and mysterious to most users. How many drivers can explain what happens when they turn the key to start their automobiles? How many writers have the faintest clue how the transistors, microchips, or programs in their laptops work?

In Inside the Machine, Megan Prelinger sets out to unravel such mysteries via what she calls “a history of electronics that explains technology through the lens of art”—chiefly in the work of the graphic artists from the postwar era whose advertisements made electronic technology visible. Because vacuum tubes, transistors, and microchips are not readily intelligible, Prelinger writes, electronics manufacturers “needed art to describe and explain” these technologies to potential corporate customers and to the public. Illustrated with more than one hundred and fifty reproductions of midcentury advertisements for radios, radar, televisions, computers, and bionics, Prelinger’s book makes a vivid case that graphic artists were not content to draw pictures of television sets or computers, but took it upon themselves to create images that revealed the unseen electronic processes “inside the machine.”

Prelinger is a historian, archivist, and cofounder of the Prelinger Library, a unique collection of historical ephemera, magazines, and books in San Francisco, and Inside the Machine is steeped in the sensibility of her namesake archive. Readers interested in the development of electronics may find the book too focused on art, while those interested in graphic design and advertising may find it hard to share the author’s enthusiasm for corporate R&D projects. But attentive readers of Prelinger’s lively chronology will come away with an appreciation of how the visual representations of technology are integral to our understanding of it.

Electronic devices remade American society and culture in the twentieth century, especially in the three decades after World War II. Radio, radar, and television were originally described as means to extend humanity’s ability to see and hear, but the advent of computers transformed electronics into an effort to simulate, augment, and perhaps, one day, replace the human brain. As early as 1952, the Institute of Radio Engineers defined electronics as nothing less than “the science and technology which deals primarily with the supplementing of man’s senses and his brain power by devices which collect and process information.”

The first key electronic device, the vacuum tube, used as a switching mechanism to control the flow of electrons, was invented in 1904. Radios, televisions, and early computers all employed vacuum tubes, which were considered a technological marvel. But tubes were bulky, gobbled electricity, generated heat, and frequently burned out. In the ’50s, tubes were replaced by transistors, which were more compact, reliable, and durable. Beginning in the ’60s, transistors have in turn been replaced by microchips, whose miniature circuitry is inscribed on tiny pieces of silicon. Both transistors and microchips made electronic technologies “small, cool, personal, and efficient,” Prelinger notes.

Fortunately for midcentury graphic artists and advertisers, one of the most common electronic devices was conspicuously visible. The cathode-ray tube (CRT), used as a video screen on oscilloscopes, radar, and television sets, transformed not only the electronics industry and American culture but Americans’ perception of the world. The CRT, Prelinger writes, became the basis of “every screen-based form of engagement that currently holds the world’s gaze.” The CRT’s “inherent visuality” also changed how artists thought about art: Images were no longer confined to canvas or paper but zipped across glowing screens. The waves and blips on oscilloscopes and radar screens quickly became widely recognized visual motifs in the sphere of graphic arts.

Herbert Bayer, The Earth Bulb, 1942. Cover of a General Electric promotional booklet.
Herbert Bayer, The Earth Bulb, 1942. Cover of a General Electric promotional booklet.

Television, meanwhile, represented the most widespread and influential use of CRTs and greatly expanded the human sensorium. The word coined for the new invention literally means “seeing from afar,” and, true to form, TV brought its audience into visual contact with a whole new world, beaming newscasts, Uncle Miltie, and the Olympic Games into viewers’ living rooms. When coupled with communications satellites such as Telstar, launched in 1962, television enabled viewers to see live images of far-flung places and events, leading Marshall McLuhan to imagine the advent of a “global village.”

As it turned out, of course, the miniaturization of technology was just getting under way, and the world had only begun to fall under its sway. While previous electronic technologies sought to extend the reach of humans’ senses, computers, which emerged as “the dominant electronic technology” beginning in the ’50s, “aimed to mimic the human mind.” Mainframe computers were large, clunky machines containing thousands of vacuum tubes. But transistors and silicon microchips enabled computers to become smaller, lighter, and vastly more powerful, and computer language, made of code, was lighter still. This posed a nettlesome problem for artists seeking to represent technological progress in a vernacular visual fashion: How could they render the processes that allowed computers to perform complex calculations and to comb enormous troves of data? Graphic artists looked past computers’ imposing physicality in an effort to depict their internal functioning. Circuit boards, for example, were appealingly graphic, as were, surprisingly, punch cards and paper tape, the cumbersome, all-too-tangible data-storage mediums used in the ’50s and ’60s, which inspired bold, geometric designs. Thus were graphic artists able to represent the strange digital language of zeros and ones that lay at the heart of the so-called Information Age.

Most of the advertisements that Prelinger collects and analyzes were published in trade journals and business magazines, such as the Proceedings of the IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) or Electronics and were pitched to “a techno-savvy segment of the public and leaders of business and industry.” This creates a distinctly distorting effect, plunging readers a bit too far inside the machine. A consideration of advertisements from popular magazines and other vernacular depictions of electronics would doubtless have offered a more complete picture of how the public viewed these technologies. Likewise, Prelinger makes scant mention of the many critics of technology who abounded in the twentieth century. In the ’60s, the New Left and the counterculture recoiled from the interlocking “system” of government, corporations, and universities that dominated scientific and technological research. Jacques Ellul’s influential book The Technological Society, published in English in 1964, warned that the growing reliance on “technique,” which Ellul defined as a combination of ostensibly rational management and the use of artificial technology and networks to dominate nature, threatened to squelch individualism until human beings became mere components of a vast technological matrix. The cover of The Technological Society depicted an IBM mainframe computer, an emblem of the ominous power of the system, while the familiar instruction “Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate,” printed on many computer punch cards, became a rallying cry to New Left foes of the military-tech-industrial complex. Such totems of resistance hint at a richer, and more robustly contested, approach to the depiction of technology than the one Prelinger recounts here.

This is an especially ironic omission, since Prelinger sounds at times like a techno-skeptic in the Ellul tradition. Inside the Machine concludes with a plea that technology be designed and used to serve humanity’s interests, not to devise more lethal weapons or more invasive techniques of surveillance. Prelinger laments that the electronics industry has too often remained insulated from social and political concerns, operating “in a condition of disconnectedness from feedback loops with society and earth science, allowing for exploitation of labor and the environment.” Meanwhile, technology companies continue to promote this state of disconnection, preferring to let the machines be their own floating signifiers; no longer is there a concerted effort to render the nuts and bolts of technological progress in the demotic sphere of graphic arts. Instead, Prelinger observes, “today the culture of technology is one of not-being-seen, a strategy that among other things hides the designs of technology in a cloak of invisibility.”

Readers—and viewers—of Inside the Machine can resist this dynamic, since the material its author presents makes one freshly attuned to the strategies that inform the selective depiction and concealment of technology in public life. But it will likely take another sort of cognitive leap for us to reclaim, as Prelinger says we must, “the power of art to create the world as we wish to see it,” since in order to create a society that uses technology to serve humanity’s ends, we must begin by envisioning that society.

Chris Rasmussen is an associate professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University.