Sci-fi influences computer design

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If you ever suspected the banks of flashing lights adorning the earliest computers were simply there for show, then go to the top of the class.

According to industrial designer, design historian and Sheffield Hallam University Professor Paul Atkinson: “There were elements for show from the word go.

“Computers were frequently given banks of flashing lights that did nothing,” Prof Atkinson told the audience at his inaugural professorial lecture.

Among them was IBM’s 370 range, launched in 1970, which had a console packed with flashing lights that Prof Atkinson’s researches show had no purpose other than to make the machine look good.

Prof Atkinson believes computer design has often been driven by a combination of lifestyle aspirations and science fiction.

He cites evidence of computers being sold to executives using images promoting hedonism, pleasure, and autonomy, which appealed to their own self image as “world citizens.”

“Representations in popular culture give rise to public expectations of what computers might conceivably do,” says Prof Atkinson.

What’s more, the appearance of electronic notepads that could read handwriting in science fiction series like Star Trek might have prompted largely unsuccessful attempts to develop real life devices in the 1980s.

“Once people see something with the ‘ability’ to understand handwriting, you expect it to be possible, so companies start to develop products,” says Prof Atkinson, whose recent book, Delete: A Design History of Computer Vapourware, explores the history of computers designed to impress that never reached the shops.