Folks looking for a lighter take on the problems of designing for an imagined future might want to screen “Desk Set,” a romantic comedy from 1957 starring Tracy & Hepburn. It concerns a group of researchers at a national network (a thinly disguised NBC) who fear being replaced by an “electronic brain” named EMERAC. Although its name is very similar to the University of Pennsylvania’s ENIAC, EMERAC is really more like Remington Rand’s UNIVAC—the first widely available mainframe.
Considering the fact that this “sci-fi” is set, not in a world centuries beyond the Eisenhower era, but in a world we can now easily recognize as the mid-1960s, it’s amazing how much the writers, designers and set decorators got wrong. By the late ‘50s, it was already apparent that transistors would make mainframes ever smaller, yet EMERAC is gigantic, easily dwarfing every other element on the set. Granted, the size of EMERAC may have more to do with the idea that technology was a huge threat to the “ladies” of the research department. Its size was merely the physical embodiment of what the electronic revolution would mean to people who earned their livings with pencils and paper.
In spite of the laughable beeps, boops and groans emitted by EMERAC (at one point it actually vents steam), a critical scene absolutely nails what the computer/Internet revolution would mean to clerks and librarians. The president of the network challenges the researchers to retrieve an obscure statistic about damage to U.S. forests caused by the spruce bud worm. We’re informed in an aside that it had taken weeks to find the information with traditional, library-based methods. The nerdy mistress of EMERAC sits down at a keyboard and types in: “How much damage is done annually to American forests by the spruce bud worm?” Almost instantaneously EMERAC spits out the answer.
The original Broadway playwright, William Marchant, clearly saw where the world was headed, because we all do pretty much the same thing every day with Google.