It is the shape, not the circuits, that makes a computer classic.
I reminisced with a fellow passenger last night on the flight back from Las Vegas, as we sat with our sleek, superslimm, forever tasking notebooks. We tried to recall (memory not what it used to be) the early eighties, pre mouse, pre “PC in every pot”, era. A ‘286’ was our machine, “DOS” nighttime reading, floppies came in size 5 ¼, word-processing an adventure in combination keystrokes, and the C drive was king. Generating wiring diagrams, schematics and circuit board layouts took hours (pre mouse, how did we ever manage), and “Al Gore’s Internet” was an infant. E-mail and going on-line a marvel. The rest is an amazing history.
So much for the circuits.
“No one will ever collect computers,” a Silicon Valley computer entrepreneur once declared to me. “Computers are just boxes.” The entrepreneur, who collected automobiles, was wrong. His company went bankrupt, and the computer he produced is now a collectible.
Computers are just boxes, but the shape of the box, like the shape of a car, is important in selling the machines. When computer hackers talk of the “architecture” of a computer, they are referring to the organization of its circuits, not the box. To the rest of us, the look is important.
The traditional designer’s ambition of expressing function in aesthetic form giving a car an aerodynamic shape, for instance-is particularly challenging for computer designers. By their nature, these machines are charged with connotation of power and control, but their functions are silent, subtle, and abstract. The expressive side of the design saying what the machine is all about-is the designer’s hardest task.
Unlike the automobile industry, where “styling” did not appear until the public had bought fifteen million simple black Model-T’s, the murderously competitive computer business achieved a level of design in its infancy remarkable for an industry. These have become the classics of today’s collectors.
The Grid Compass and the Mindset have been for many years in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
However, who remembers these? –
The Digital Equipment Rainbow monitor, little more than a stripped-down picture tube, it sat on the desk with the tenuous dramatic balance of a Brancusi head. Digital Equipment used the fact that the computer won international design awards in their advertising.
Memotech’s cool brushed-metal black box. Memotech contrasted itself to plastic computers by touting its “extruded aluminum casing,” for protecting the chips, acting as “a heat sink,” and serving a “a Faraday cage, completely sealing off radio-frequency interference that could impair picture quality.”
Kaypro acted as if it did not care about design, but the crude metal box that housed its bargain-basement computer made it look as basic and no-nonsense as a WWII Jeep did. Referred to by engineers as “Darth Vader’s lunch box”.
Radio Shack’s TRS-80, the silver plastic housing led computer buffs nickname them “Trash-80’s.”
And finally, a German company called Frogdesign opened an office in Campbell, California, near the Apple Headquarters, in Cuptertino. Soon it had produced the Apple IIc, a pure white machine with a ridged, squarish box, combining keyboard and system unit, “unsculptured keys”, and a futuristic looking monitor. Ah, those Germans and their machines.
Designers approached the first personal computers with the science fiction models of Buck Rogers and 2001 fixed firmly in their minds. Those images-visions of what a computer would look like if it existed-inspired the shape the machine took when it finally became a reality, and what an incredible journey it was, is, and will be.
Composed on an antique Mac II (I know, it does not compete with Charles’ ancient Osborne I).