Visionary computers of the past

Charles Babbage, Difference Engine

The grandfather of all computers: a modern reconstruction of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine (designed in 1849, yet not built at the time) currently at the Science Museum in London; photo Luigi Rosa (CC BY-SA 2.0).

History of computer design: the most innovative and unconventional PCs ever made

I have always found it strange how a ubiquitous object such as the personal computer is still neglected in most design history books, museums, and academic courses, with only a few exceptions. While those publications and revered institutions are plenty of designs of furniture, light fixtures, cars, and even tableware – consumer electronics products are much less featured, and computers are almost completely ignored, apart from some designs by Apple.

I may advance some personal explanations for that – for example that no master of modern design, like Mies van der Rohe or Marcel Breuer, ever had the occasion to design a computer, or that consumer electronics has been traditionally considered a too-technical field dominated by engineers and information technology specialists. in any case, the result is that research on the aesthetic, ergonomic, and expressive design of computers has been traditionally dull and that, most times, computers look like uninspiring gray-painted metal boxes.

children at computers 1984

Children at computers in 1984; photo courtesy of Indiana University Kokomo Archives via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

I am not just talking about a lack of “styling”; the industrial design is a complex, multidisciplinary field that influences the capability of a product of being truly innovative in many ways. User interface design, sustainability, the introduction of new materials and manufacturing processes, the physical and immaterial relationship between user and machine (or Human-Computer interaction – HCI), ease of use, portability, safety, low running costs, beauty, simplicity, reliability; are all aspects which substantially contribute to a good design.

There are also technical reasons for so many uninspired computer designs; one is that the hardware of computers usually consists of flat rectangular elements whose arrangement is based on a rigidly rectangular three-dimensional grid; something which doesn’t leave much space for inventiveness, indeed. Nevertheless, especially with the progress of component miniaturization, there is much room now for more interesting designs.

Computer Design Brionvega 201 TV NextCube and Power Mac G3 cube

Evolution of the species? From left to right: Brionvega 201 TV set, 1969 (design: Richard Sapper, Marco Zanuso); NeXT Cube workstation, 1986 (design: Hartmut Esslinger); Power Mac G4 Cube, 2000 (design: Jonathan Ive / Apple Design Team)

 

Design Brionvega Television vs Apple iMac

“…I am your father!” Left: Brionvega Algol portable TV, 1965 (design: Richard Sapper, Marco Zanuso); right: iMac G3, 1998 (design: Jonathan Ive)

Until recently, the most relevant influences on the design of computers came from two main sources: science fiction films (2001 A Space Odyssey, and Minority Report, just to name a few), and pre-PC era consumer electronics, especially in the work of German and Italian designers such as Dieter Rams, Richard Sapper, and Marco Zanuso, among others.
Yet, over time, also designs that express a more original approach that doesn’t refer to previous archetypes are emerging together with new aesthetical paradigms; thus suggesting that the design of digital devices is possibly adult enough to find its own way to glory.


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our articles about Visionary computers of the past

Computer design: Commodore PET 2001 (1977)

Computer design: Commodore PET 2001 (1977)

The Commodore PET 2001, possibly the first personal computer ever, with its angular white colored case, is the epitome of technology design in the '70s
case-studies
Olivetti Programma 101: at the origins of the Personal Computer

Olivetti Programma 101: at the origins of the Personal Computer

The Olivetti Programma 101 desk-top computer; history, design, and legacy of what is possibly the first human-centered personal computer ever
case-studies
Osborne 1 (1981) – when the personal computer became portable

Osborne 1 (1981) – when the personal computer became portable

The Osborne 1, history and design of the first portable personal computer, designed by Lee Felsenstein and produced by Osborne Corporation from 1981 to 1983
case-studies
The Holborn 9100 microcomputer (1981) and its design

The Holborn 9100 microcomputer (1981) and its design

Released in 1981, the Dutch microcomputer Holborn 9100, with its periscope-like monitor, is one of the most "futuristic" computer designs of the Eighties
case-studies
The NeXTcube (1988-1995), history and design

The NeXTcube (1988-1995), history and design

History and design of the NeXTcube, the iconic black workstation with which Steve Jobs created what, in his vision, the "perfect" computer looked like in 1988
case-studies



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