Cold War-era Governement Computer Created the First Digital Art

By Wesley Fenlon

Even computers should be able to take some time off from watching for nuclear missiles to let loose with a little digital art.

Today, landmark moments in computer technology are all about how small we can make things. Computers fit in our pockets. We can fit fit 1.4 billion transistors onto a quad-core processor. A single USB thumbdrive can hold dozens of gigabytes of data. Fifty years ago, size was the defining feature of every super-powered computer, which makes The Atlantic's story on the world's first computer art especially interesting (and a little bit ironic).

Photo Credit: IBM

In 1956, a computer programmer used a computer worth $1.89 billion in modern bucks (at least $200 million in 50s money) to draw a line graphic of a pinup girl on a 19-inch CRT monitor. The concept of drawing a pinup on a small black and white monitor is even more ridiculous considering the history of computer, the AN/FSQ-7, and the government system it was a part of. The Air Force, MIT and IBM constructed 21 SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) centers in the United States, each of which contained a four story installation housing two of those $1.89 billion dollar bad boys.

When they weren't being used to render pinup girls, the computers were designed to combine radar and airline data and watch out for anomalies that could be Soviet missiles. The Cold War was serious business, but not so serious that someone could take a little time out to draw a pinup girl from the pages of Esquire magazine.

"Draw" doesn't exactly describe the girl's creation, though; the AN/FSQ-7 was programmed with punch cards. It took something like 97 of them to create the pinup girl. She did serve a purpose, though--the pinup girl appeared on screen as a diagnostic when one computer offloaded work to the other, which happened regularly so that the staffers could keep the AN/FSQ-7's 50,000 vacuum tubes in operation.

About five years later, she was succeeded by a hula girl whose hips moved back and forth with the turn of a switch. The first piece of digital art, and perhaps even the first piece of interactive digital art, were both born from computers designed to protect us from nuclear Armageddon. Isn't history cool?