Of the computers starring in ISU's upcoming Arts Tech Film Fest (see story elsewhere on this page), one is especially close to our hearts.
Close, because it's followed us around most of our life … through a dozen-odd movies and TV series, like the dogged inspector from "Les Miserables."
We're talking about the ubiquitous EMERAC from the 1957 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy, “Desk Set,” produced when computers weren't just computers … they were the elephants in the room, and 10 times as big.
In "Desk Set," EMERAC (Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator) is installed in an office research library to streamline operations and, it is inferred, replace humans.
The replacement of humans seems to have less to do with superior efficiency than the mere bulk of its colossal size.
It (being gender-neutral) gurgles, beeps and clatters in a whimsical way only first-generation movie computers can (think: "boop-boop-a-doop!").
In addition, EMERAC displays a personality on the playful end of the spectrum, with none of the compounding neuroses that would plague its space-bound heir of 11 years later, HAL ("2001: A Space Odyssey").
In terms of computers-in-movies history, EMERAC came along after the first "brain" to land a starring role in Hollywood, courtesy 1954's "Gog," in which an easily duped computer named NOVAC (Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer) is taken over by sinister (i.e., Red) forces at a top secret underground government research lab in the New Mexico desert.
True to '50s form, NOVAC occupies most of the available research center space and, even then, probably hasn't got a fraction of the power embedded in the lowest-end hand-held device of 10 years ago.
Earthbound NOVAC's avatars become a pair of Dalek-like robots, Gog and Magog, who are programmed to run amok in best '50s clunky-but-endearing sci-fi style.
("Gog," not a part of the Arts Tech Fest, alas, was released in a Blu-ray edition several weeks ago, via the Kino-Lorber label, and comes with its original Technicolor and stereoscopic 3-D fully restored; check it out ... we're told it beats most modern-day 3-D technology in its depth-of-field impact.)
So, bottom line: "Gog" was for accommodating pulp fanboy sensibilities; "Desk Set" was for techno-phobic mom and dad.
Clearly harboring a more sophisticated agenda (playing sly matchmaker for Tracy and Hepburn), EMERAC brought computers into the mainstream in lavish CinemaScope/Technicolor terms, courtesy the art department at 20th Century-Fox.
The first time we caught "Desk Set," all we could think of was ... "ooohh, cool, it's the matter transmitter control board from 'The Fly' ... or, wait a minute, no, is it the Seaview's computer from 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea'?"
Actually, in fact, it was both ... except the order was reversed: "The Fly's" matter transmitter control board and the Seaview's computer 20,000 leagues below the show came from ... mom and dad's "Desk Set."
EMERAC, we hardly knew ye.
As the years passed, we began to discern a pattern: for any movie or TV show from 20th Century-Fox requiring a computer, all roads led back to "Desk Set."
Among movie buffs, that flashing screen with its patterned cubes of flashing lights became one of the most ubiquitously re-used studio props of all time, either en toto, or dismantled and raided for parts.
You name the Fox sci-fi movie, EMERAC was there, patterned lights a-flashing:
"Kronos" (1957), which appears to be the first film to re-use it; "The Fly" (1958); "Return of the Fly" (1959); the original movie version of "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1961); "Fantastic Voyage" (1966); virtually every '60s Irwin Allen-produced TV series extant, especially "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," where it was on view every week somewhere behind Richard Basehart's and David Hedison's furrowed brows, but also in "Lost in Space," "Time Tunnel," etc.
EMERAC, we salute you.
You were big ... it was the pictures that got small.