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Jim Henson Built a Muppet Computer for AT&T in 1963

By Wesley Fenlon

Computer H14 starred in a charming corporate video for Ma Bell in 1963, disarming fears that machine communication would make humans obsolete.

It may not surprise you to learn that Jim Henson created a Muppet you've heard of back in the 1960s. What probably will surprise you, however, is that the Muppet Henson created in 1963 was a computer. A computer Henson built for AT&T, or Ma Bell as it was known then. A computer built for a corporate video meant to entertain AT&T employees. Wired has the weird, weird story.

At first, this doesn't sound like Jim Henson at all. A computer? A corporate short film, shown to Ma Bell's subsidiaries at a corporate meeting? Once you see H14, the talking computer Henson built, it all makes sense. H14 isn't a real computer, of course. He's a muppet with a big mouth and a body covered with knobs and flashing lights like something from 1950s sci-fi.

When H14 lays out the differences between machines and humans, he says "the machine possess supreme intelligence, a faultless memory, and a beautiful soul...It has no emotion, while mere mortals wallow in a sea of emotionalism." H14 comically smacks his lips when he receives a "vast ocean of information." It's all silly in a very Muppets way--just as H14 starts to declare machines would function flawlessly without man, his voice begins to slow and his gears grind to a halt...until a human hand reaches over, turns a toy-like crank on H14's side, and starts him up again.

"While mere mortals wallow is a sea of emotionalism, the machine is busy digesting vast oceans of information in a single all-encompassing gulp."

The humor had a point--Ma Bell was working to set up networked communications in the business world, but people were a little wary of the influx of machines into their companies. "Companies had grown to depend on enormous IBM mainframe computers, and they were forced to install a new mainframe at each and every one of their branch offices," Wired explains. "AT&T aimed to replace all those duplicate machines with a system that would allow a single mainframe to communicate with several remote locations via high-speed data connections. Ma Bell already had a near monopoly on voice communications, and this was its next conquest.

"The rub was that many people feared a robopocalypse — a dystopian world where machines made man obsolete. Ma Bell also needed to reassure the Baby Bells that its machine-to-machine communication wouldn’t take over the planet."

H14 did just that. The Muppet is utterly harmless while bragging about its superiority. As H14 goes on a tirade about machines not needing humans, it's obvious he's trying to convince himself of that reality. H14's breakdown ends with him begging for a mechanic. Henson's creation hit the perfect notes to defuse worries about computer intelligence in the 1960s; too bad he's not around to create a modern successor to H14.