posted by Howard Fosdick on Mon 12th Sep 2011 22:41 UTC
IconI usually write about topics like operating systems and computer refurbishing. Today let's ditch that trivial stuff and tackle something really important like... How have computers and operating systems been portrayed on TV and in films? It's time we seek our inner geek. With this hearty sign of approval we're on our way...

Trekkie Sign(Image: NationalSpatula)

"Sherman, Set the WABAC Machine"


Remember Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sherman? They co-starred in the popular TV cartoon shows Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. The former initially aired from 1959 to 1961, while the latter ran from 1961 to 1964. (Hey, you knew it was going downhill when they gave The Moose top billing!)

If you think you're too young to have seen this show, think again. Rocky and the gang have been syndicated continuously for 50 years. Quality will tell. As co-star Dudley Do-Right would say, "Have no fear, for Rocky and friends are still here!" Currently they run on the Boomerang channel on Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 a.m. ET.  (Now there's something worth getting up for.)

The key plot device in the show was the WABAC Machine (pronounced as the "Way Back Machine"). This is a computer that transports people back in time. Inevitably, Mr. Peabody and Sherman were transported back to a famous historical event that was going awry. They would convince important historical figures to change their actions and thus create history as we know it today.

Does it seem strange they would walk into the WABAC Machine itself? Not to the audience of 1960. That's how big computers were.

The WABAC was probably named after famous 1950s computers whose names all ended in "AC" -- the ENIAC, UNIVAC, and the like. I have a friend who enthusiastically theorizes that the WABAC machine was actually a secret government project forked from ILLIAC at the University of Illinois. He kind of froths at the mouth when he talks about it. (Fortunately, I no longer have to work with this friend.)

Here are Mr. Peabody and Sherman entering the WABAC Machine to correct the past. Look at those faces. Would you entrust world history to those two dufuses?

Entering the WABAC Machine (Image: Wikipedia)

Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sherman enter the WABAC Machine,
1960.


"Danger, Will Robinson!"


Lost in Space was another popular TV series that ran from 1965 until it was cancelled in a unbelievable programming error in 1968. Thank goodness it came back as a comic book in 1991 and a film in 1998!

Computers didn't really figure in a big way in Lost in Space. What most viewers will remember from this fondly-cherished lost gem is its humanoid robot. Specifically, the General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot, Model B9:

Lost In Space Robot photo 1 Lost In Space Robot photo 2 (Images: ImageyeNation and  The Lost In Space Page)

"Danger, Will Robinson!"


It seemed like the robot was always waving its arms and saying "Danger, Will Robinson!" to warn the other characters in the show, who apparently didn't have its manual dexterity.  This happened so often that this phrase has become an expression in hacker culture and IT.

Now, here's the unbelievable part. According to this Wikipedia article, the robot only said the complete phrase "Danger, Will Robinson!" once on the show. Specifically, in episode 11 of season 3, entitled "The Deadliest of the Species." The robot often gave warnings of "Warning!" and "Danger!" while flailing its arms, yet it only said the classic phrase in its entirety once.

I find this really hard to believe. You know all those serious studies that compare the accuracy of Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica? This just goes to show how wrong the Wiki can be! If this is indicative of the quality of online encyclopedias, I for one intend to immediately march into my parent's basement and confiscate the EB we used as kids.

Now, about the robot. You know you want one. Admit it! You can buy a full-size replica today with complete animation, control and audio features. For only $24,500 (overseas shipping extra.) What a steal! Gimme two!

While the robot regularly stole the show, there were some memorable LIS episodes where non-robotic computers figured prominently. My personal favorite was "Invaders from the 5th Dimension," where aliens decide to capture Mr. Smith and replace their burnt-out computer with his brain. Mr. Smith, no fool he, cleverly offers them Will Robinson's brain instead! Danger, Will Robinson!

Then there was "Cave of the Wizards," where a computer lures Mr. Smith into a cave, so that it can take over his mind and body and transform him into an alien. Wow, TV just doesn't get any better than this! (Except maybe in the episode "Kidnapped in Space," where a computer rules aliens who kill John with a laser beam! (WARNING: PLOT SPOILER -- but don't worry, it turns out the androids can control time and... well, you can figure it out.)


"To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before"


Dare I go where no man has gone before? I'm not a Trekkie so I could get flamed here. I mean really melted. But the historical importance of the Star Trek franchise is simply too great to ignore. It means so much to all of us. 

(Yes, my Trekkie friend who reviewed this section has already admonished me that the famous phrase was updated to "To boldly go where no one has gone before" in the TNG years.)


Star Trek is a wildly successful TV and cinema franchise. Not to mention all the spin-offs in games, books, comics, dolls, clothing, and you-name-it. On the ST page at Wikipedia (and we now know how accurate that is, don't we?), I count 6 different Star Trek TV series and 11 films. There was even a themed attraction at Las Vegas for a decade. As John Denver would say, "Far out!"

People devote their lives to trekking. I once encountered enthusiasts dressed in full Klingon battle gear -- speaking in Klingon -- while dining in Altamont, Illinois (population 2,283). Apparently they were passing through on the way to a convention in Chicago. (They told me you can get a Klingon Dictionary for your iPhone now, as part of the Klingon Language Suite. As its ad relates: "Amuse your Vulcan friends and confound your Romulan adversaries by discussing your strategy for galactic dominance in Klingon!")

What's cool about the Trek universe is that we're not talking about just computers or robots here. We're actually talking operating systems! That you can actually run on your own computer!!

Let's back trek for a minute and get all this straight. LCARS is the operating system depicted in the Star Trek TV series and films. It stands for the Library Computer Access/Retrieval System. Here's how LCARS is depicted in the 2002 film, Star Trek Nemesis:


Viewing LCARS in Star Trek Nemesis (Image: Wikipedia)

Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Lieutenant Commmanders Data and Geordi La Forge View LCARS Output


The LCARS GUI was designed by Michael Okuda, who went on to co-author the immortal Star Trek TNG Technical Manual and do important design work for the series. Unfortunately his career deteriorated and he eventually ended up working for NASA, where he got stuck with the prestigious NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal. Probably pinned on him by the President himself. Tough luck, Michael!

For those of you who can't wait to make LCARS your screen background, here's LCARS wallpaper. (Shoot me for asking, but how is it that a 24th century computer screen has such a 1970's color scheme?)

LCARS Wallpaper (Image: Wikipedia) Enterprise-D Wallpaper ... Enjoy!


By now I imagine you just can't stand it... you want to run LCARS on your computer!! You have several choices. One is LCARS24, which runs on DOS and early Windows versions. From the project website: "LCARS 24 lets you turn an old TrueColor laptop into an LCARS (Starfleet-style) musical or talking alarm clock and calendar that is also an agile 32-bit DPMI system shell with many bundled LCARS programs ..."

How cool is that? Your junk 1998 laptop goes Starfleet! Here's a sample LCARS24 screen:


LCARS24 Screenshot (Image: Wikipedia)

The LCARS24 Screen with Calendaring


A more current option is the LCARS x32 project.  LCARS x32 is a "... 24th Century replacement for the Windows desktop... that transforms your Windows based PC into a 24th Century LCARS terminal."

Somebody broke the Microsoft monopoly in only three centuries?? I find that hard to believe. Make it so! (Downloads are free here.)

One other thing about Star Trek. Ever wonder about those handheld computers they're always checking? They're called PADDs, or Personal Access Display Devices. PADDs are used by Starfleet, the Andorian Imperial Guard, the Bajoran Militia, the Klingon Empire, the Romulan Star Empire, the Vulcan High Command, and even in cultures as distant as the Delta Quadrant. Even the Cardassians have them.  So you can call Kim, Kourtney, or Khloé if you're on Mars and need a hot date. (No disrespect intended, I actually don't know! which of these charming young women may be married... at the moment.)

Finally, let's not overlook the several iPad apps and interfaces for the LCARS experience. Turns out your iPad was really a PADD and you just didn't know it.

There is so much more to rave about Star Trek, but space is limited (in this column, not in the Final Frontier in which the Enterprise romps!). So with my deep personal regrets, we go on to our last film classic.


"Modernization Isn't Everything!"


We've covered the heavyweights, so now here's a forgotten gem: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. This laugh machine came out in 1969, with a young Kurt Russell in the lead role as Dexter Riley. Dexter is a "less than average" -- translation: nerdy -- college student who gets zapped when tiddling with a mainframe computer. He absorbs the computer's characteristics and gains encyclopedic knowledge. (Apparently IBM mainframes were just giant repositories of facts.) This helps Dexter and his classmates win quiz competitions but leads to friction with the shady businessman who donated the computer to the college.

Catch the groovy introductory animation clip over at our National Cultural Archive (informally referred to as Youtube). It's a real period piece.

Kurt Russell felt so good about the Dexter Riley character he went on to play him in the film sequels Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972) and The Strongest Man in the World (1975). The excitement all takes place at fictional Medfield College, also the location in immortal flicks like Flubber, Son of Flubber, and The Absent-Minded Professor. Did you have that much fun in college? (Should'a gone to Medfield, should'a gone to Medfield ...)


The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)           Now You See Him, Now You Don't          The Strongest Man in the World    (Images: IMDB) 

The adventures of Dexter Riley.  Being a human computer was only the beginning...


A classic like this deserves a remake, and so it was, in 1995. This time 90's teen heart-throb Kirk Cameron became the human computer. It was only a made-for-TV movie, but don't worry, I hear you can still get it on DVD. Who says America doesn't manufacture anything anymore?


That's all the excitement I can handle in one article. We'll continue this theme in my next OS News article. Until then, prospective Medfield students, your assignment is to list your favorite computers in film and TV.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. Read his other articles and download his free PDF guide How To Tune Up Windows here. You can reach him at contactfci at the domain name of sbcglobal (period) net.

Disclaimer:  This article is intended to be humourless humorous and comments should not be taken seriously.
e p (6)    69 Comment(s)

Technology White Papers

See More