Computers and Futures

— Dick van Lente —

Two panels at the conference of the Society for the History of Technology in Philadelphia, last October, were devoted to ‘Computers and futures: expectations of a future with computers in eight countries, 1945-1970.’ During the first post war decades, several scientists, politicians and intellectuals believed that electronic computers would fundamentally change societies. They spoke of a ‘second industrial revolution’ that would be more disruptive than the first industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. These panels explored how digital computers were discussed and applied in countries with very different economic and political structures, as well as different cultural backgrounds. Papers ranged from Western countries such as the US, the Netherlands and New Zealand, to communist countries like the Soviet Union, Poland and the GDR. Our goal was to compare these different national experiences, to explore transnational influences and interactions, and to find out if revolutionary change was indeed expected in each country, and if so of what kind and how to respond.

Margo Boenig-Liptsin explored different responses in the US, France and the Soviet Union in the late 1960s to the need to educate people in the use of computers, as it was expected in each of these countries that small computer terminals would soon enter homes and offices. Martin Schmitt discussed how the introduction of computers in savings banks in East and West Germany during the 1960s was bound up with very different prospects and projects of these banks in a period of expansion on both sides of the Iron Curtain. David Schmudde described the international career of the developer of one of the first personal computers, Jack Tramiel of Commodore computers, whose early success depended upon his international network of cheap suppliers.

While these papers dealt with connections between expectations and practices, others analysed popular discourse around computers. These also clearly demonstrated transnational influences. Ksenia Tatarchenko showed how Soviet popular media reacted to cartoons depicting computers in the American Time magazine, created by an émigré Russian artist, and Miroslaw Sikora’s demonstrated how Polish popular magazines borrowed from both Russian and American examples, creating a Polish mix. The Dutch case (Dick van Lente) showed that popular images hardly referred to the Dutch situation at all and were often borrowed from abroad. Two papers discussed expectations of professionals in the Soviet Union, the United States and New Zealand. Barbara Walker compared the influence of American and soviet mathematicians on the types of computers developed in these countries. Janet Toland discussed how computer professionals in New Zealand mediated between the public and international debates.

The contributors intend to continue their explorations together, attract papers about other countries, and produce a cooperative volume.

For more information, please contact the panel organizer, Dick van Lente, at vanlente@eur.nl