The mechanical computers of yesterday may have been enormous, difficult to program, and amazingly clunky—but they sure were beautiful to watch in action. Released theatrically by Popular Science on August 6, 1948, this short film played before Paramount Pictures movies and demonstrated to the public how computers were freeing “research of old limitations” and provided “stimulus for unprecedented technical advancements.” For those watching in darkened theaters, though, it was mostly just gorgeously choreographed machinery.
The differential analyzer seen in the film landed at UCLA after World War II, and it would go on to be one of four hulking mechanical computers that set the stage for the meteoric rise in postwar computing power at America’s universities.
Invented by Vannevar Bush, the differential analyzer we see here required a lengthy set-up before it could process any information. But once it was humming along, it could solve complex mathematical equations.
The video opens by praising UCLA’s scientific research efforts during WWII and moves on to show how one of their new mechanical computers works:
This amazing mechanical brain quickly solves mathematical problems that would require months by ordinary computing methods. The brain is becoming an invaluable aid in our aircraft capital — speeding engineering research and reducing time spent on flight tests. It is also available for solution of other industrial design problems.
The film ends with a shot of a rocket, promising viewers that soon they would be speeding to the moon and other planets. These enormous machines would put us into space, the film promises; they would push us into that glorious techno-utopian future. The future may no longer include mechanical computers with parts that twirl and buzz, but it’s quite a gorgeous sight to see the humming innovations that got us here.