Photo Essays

Gleaming Digital Photos Make Vintage Computers New

PILOT_ACE
Pilot ACE, 1950s, from James Ball’s ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016) (all images courtesy James Ball/INK)

Before computers were domesticated into sleek little iPhones, they were unwieldy beasts of machines that weighed up to two-and-a-half tons. From the Harwell Dekatron of the 1950s, the world’s oldest working computing device, to Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE, equipped with 800 vacuum tubes, most of these early computers now sit in museums.

In his ongoing series Guide to Computing, London-based photographer James Ball, who goes by Docubyte, portrays the ancestors of our modern digital devices as they might have been seen in their heyday. Ball spent several months photographing vintage computers from the collections of the National Museum of Computing and the Science Museum in the UK, the Technical Collections of Dresden, and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

CONTROL_DATA
Endim 2000, James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)

What makes Ball’s photographs different from, say, those in museums’ online galleries is extensive digital retouching, done with the help of production studio INK. In person, most of these machines look past their prime, and to a contemporary audience, they’re clunky, obsolete relics. But here, thanks to six months’ worth of post-production, they appear brand new. Set against colorful backgrounds, the machines in these photographs “represent a truth and a fiction together,” Ball writes in a statement. “The digital restoration has culminated in the creation of an image never seen before in this context.”

With its candy-colored iMacs, Apple is often credited with bringing a designer’s eye for style to computing devices. But these photographs highlight the quirky aesthetic appeal of old-school machines: the Control Data 6600, considered the first successful supercomputer, is a bug-eyed, retrofuturistic beauty; the Meda 42TA, built in former Czechoslovakia in the ’70s, is a bright tangle of wires and knobs; the IBM 729, which used magnetic tape up to 2,400 feet long on large reels, looks like a massive red and white cassette deck. Looking at the images on a computer screen lends them a weird meta aspect — it’s like your device is showing you its historic family photo album.

IBM_729
IBM 729, James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)
EAI_PACE
EAI pace (TR 48), James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)
MEDA
Meda 42TA, 1970s, James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)
IBM_1401
IBM 1401, James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)
I-C-L
ICL 7500, James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)
HDR_75
HDR 75, James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)
ENDIM
ENDIM 2000, James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)
DEKATRON
Harwell Dekatron, James Ball, ‘Guide to Computing’ (2016)
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