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

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); photo courtesy of Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA / xRez Studio

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

I have always found strange how an ubiquitous object like the personal computer is still neglected in design history books, museums, and academic courses, with few exceptions. While those are plenty of  design for pieces of furniture, light fixtures, cars, and even tableware – consumer electronics products are much less considered, and computer are almost completely ignored, apart from some designs by Apple.

I can 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 an over-technical field dominated by engineers and information technology specialists -, be as it may, the result is that research on the aesthetic, ergonomic, and expressive design of computers has been traditionally quite dull and that computers most times take the form of gray, boring sheet metal boxes.

man with electronic brain comics

Xerox Parc Xerox Alto

From scary machine to everyday companion. Up: an image from the comic book “The Man with the Electronic Brain” by Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson, 1961. Down: A Xerox Alto at the Xerox PARC, ca. 1973; photo: parc.com

I am not talking about a lack of “styling”; industrial design is a complex, multidisciplinary field which influences the capability of a product of being truly innovative in many aspects. User interface design, sustainability, introduction of new materials and manufacturing processes, physical and immaterial relationship between user and machine, ease of use, portability, safety, cost reduction, beauty, simplicity, reliability; they are all aspects which substantially contribute to a good design.

Obviously, there are also technical reasons for that traditionally uninspired approach to computer design; one is that a computer hardware is usually composed of an array of flat rectangular elements whose arrangement is based on a rigidly rectangular 3D grid; something which admittedly doesn’t leave much space for inventiveness. Yet, especially with the progress of miniaturization, there is still room for interesting experimentation, happily; otherwise, this section of Inexhibit would have been really short.

2001 A Space Odyssey Hal memory banks

Still from 2001 A Space odyssey by Stanley Kubrick: HAL 9000’s logic memory center

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: Harmut Esslinger); Power Mac G4 Cube, 2000 (design: Jonathan Ive / Apple Design Team)

Dieter Rams Braun television FS 80 1964

Braun television FS 80, 1964, design: Dieter Rams; photo by Koichi Okuwaki

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 ante-PC era consumer electronics, especially through the work of German and Italian designers such as Dieter Rams, Richard Sapper, and Marco Zanuso, for example. Yet, over time, also designs which express a totally original approach, which doesn’t rely on previous archetypes, have emerged; suggesting that computer design could be possibly enough adult to find its own way.


sponsored links

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

Apple iPhone’s design – from the the 1st generation to iPhone X

Apple iPhone’s design – from the the 1st generation to iPhone X

From the first generation to the iPhone X, the design of the Apple iPhone, how it was conceived by Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, and its influence on tech design
case-studies
Apple Mac Pro second generation (2013), the day desktop computer changed shape

Apple Mac Pro second generation (2013), the day desktop computer changed shape

Apple Mac Pro second generation (2013). History, ancestors, design and manufacturing of one of the most innovative and controversial desktop computers ever
case-studies
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
History of Computer design: Holborn 9100 (1981)

History of Computer design: Holborn 9100 (1981)

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
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 invented
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
SEIKO UC-2000 (1984) – the dawn of wearable computers

SEIKO UC-2000 (1984) – the dawn of wearable computers

History and design of the Seiko UC-2000, the first wristwatch computer in history, and of other Japanese wearable and pocket computers of the '80s
case-studies
The different fate of Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh (and why design matters)

The different fate of Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh (and why design matters)

History, concept, and design of the Apple Lisa and Macintosh, among the first GUI-based personal computers ever, and the reasons of their different commercial success
case-studies

sponsored links