I 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…(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
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
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
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?
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
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:
“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.
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
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
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
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
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?)
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
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
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 KhloÃ© 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 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.
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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who
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.