Attack of the Giant Brains

cartoon of men carrying equipment
Ed Fisher

A 1956 cartoon, originally published in Saturday Review, provides a glimpse of how the arrival of computers affected the American imagination.

When American industry first adopted computers in the early 1950s, their potential seemed unlimited. Consultants assured corporate executives that the new machines could tackle a whole range of business tasks, not only rivaling the ability of humans to complete such chores, but surpassing it. In an example that now seems quaint, Wallace Eckert, chief architect of the first computer installed at IBM's Manhattan headquarters in 1948, boasted that his Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator could predict the positions of the moon at six-hour intervals for the next century in less than two years—a task that would take almost 55 years to complete by hand.

Not surprisingly, says Charles Yood, the arrival of this new technology created considerable excitement—and also considerable fear. Yood, a doctoral candidate in history at Penn State, explains that even before computers were embraced for business purposes Americans were inundated with media accounts of "mechanical brains" that could work "faster than a human, tirelessly, and without errors." With these "brains" invading the workplace, even white-collar workers worried that their world would become automated, their jobs obsolete. Pop culture echoed these fears. In the 1957 film Desk Set, for example, Spencer Tracy plays Richard Sumner, an engineer hired to install a computer for Katherine Hepburn's Bunny Watson, head of a television network's research department. The machine will help her be more productive, he promises, but Watson is immediately suspicious: her fear is soon justified when the computer fires not only her but also the entire research staff, the head of the network, and Sumner, who isn't even on the payroll.

In the summer of 2000, while digging through files at IBM's corporate archives in Somers, New York, Yood stumbled upon boxes and boxes of newspaper cartoons, magazine articles, and press releases from the 1950s and '60s reflecting the same technophobia.

Yood proposes that no single factor caused computers to be viewed as a threat. Instead, "It's lots of little things." Like the feasibility studies that companies typically conducted before buying a computer, with methods engineers examining work processes, looking for functions that might be automated: Having to explain the mundane aspects of their jobs to efficiency experts caused workers to fear that the computer would replace them. Promises by upper-management that no one would be fired fell on deaf ears, Yood says, because "All the signs suggested otherwise."

In hindsight, the fears of technological unemployment proved largely unwarranted. Yood cites a 1961 study of 20 companies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which reported that out of 2,800 employees affected by the installation of a large computer, only nine were laid off. That low number is a bit misleading, he suggests. "Instead of layoffs, some companies relocated workers to other departments, and relied on marriage and pregnancy to reduce their numbers of female employees."

The promises of tremendous savings also proved exaggerated. "By the late 1950s," Yood says, "it was abundantly clear that computers had failed to deliver the rapid gains in office productivity promised by salesmen and systems specialists." He offers multiple explanations. First, the computer technology of the early 1950s was simply not advanced enough to live up to its hype, and as a result the much-vaunted automation was mostly limited to simple tasks like payroll processing. Second, the complex personal interactions that play into even routine business decisions proved difficult to model and program so that a computer could carry them out. Third, data-processing managers, most of whom were young relative to other corporate managers, faced considerable resistance in getting the authority they needed to apply computers broadly within the company. Wary senior executives were reluctant to surrender data to these "upstarts," Yood says, as this was perceived as a loss of autonomy and authority.

Perhaps the biggest reason that computers were slow to reach their potential, he stresses, was the pervasive image of the "giant brain." One cartoon from the 1950s shows an executive standing over a computer, tearfully reminiscing, "I feel a sentimental attachment toward that particular button. It does the job I did when I first came here." In another, an irate boss thunders, "Get busy! We don't pay you to think here, Morris! We've got an electronic brain for that!!!"

The ubiquitous comic relief pointed to a widespread insecurity. Yood suggests that the metaphor of a mechanical brain became a powerful organizing trope for people struggling to understand computers. But by depicting the computer as a thinking machine, faster and more efficient than humans, the metaphor also engendered anxiety. In response, the business-machine industry was forced to launch a full-scale public relations campaign, including testimony before Congress, to dispel the myth of the electronic brain as a job destroyer.

Anticipating public fears and tailoring tactics accordingly could have greatly eased the computer's initial transition into the workplace, suggests Yood. "As people who are affected by technology, it's important for us to consider carefully how any new technology is likely to be received."

Charles Yood is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of science and technology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 105 Weaver Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; cny1@psu.edu. His adviser is Robert Proctor, Ph.D., Ferree professor of the history of science in the College of the Liberal Arts, 312 Weaver Bldg.; 814-863-8943; rnp5@psu.edu. In 2002, Yood received a graduate fellowship from Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.

Last Updated September 01, 2003