An Introduction to Digital Computers, 1969

Video of the Month from Hagley Digital Archives
Monday, January 22, 2018

An Introduction to Digital Computers produced in 1969 for the Sperry Corporation’s UNIVAC Division uses a series of animations and still images to describe the technology behind digital computing. In the opening minutes of the film, the narrator lays out the film’s intent:

“The notion that an electronic digital computer is a brain is a common misconception. Largely due to a lack of knowledge about the functions and abilities of a computer. But what actually is a computer? What does it do? How does it work?”

Considering the film came out a year after 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the infamous HAL made his mark, dispelling the myth of a computer as a brain seems a reasonable mission.

The film’s sponsor, Sperry-UNIVAC, traced its origins to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, one of the first commercial producers of digital computers when founded in 1947. When An Introduction to Digital Computers was made in 1969, Sperry-UNIVAC was a division of the Remington-Rand company, a significant computer manufacturer at the time. The need to educate about computing technology in such a rudimentary way is a curious project for Sperry-UNIVAC considering its narrow customer base. The limited functionality and cost of computers meant that customers comprised primarily of large businesses, government, and universities. 

As is the case with most industrial films, it’s difficult to discern its intended audience. Since it does not explicitly market Sperry-UNIVAC computers it’s possible that the company planned to place the film in classrooms. It’s also possible, that the film was made for the employees working for existing and potential customers as a means to educate direct users or those whose work might be impacted by computers. We can sometimes find instances in newspaper archives of industrial films being shown to the public which can help in determining its audience. I was unable to find any traces of evidence about this particular film.

While not credited, Target FIlm Productions - an industrial film company headquartered in New York -- produced the film for Sperry-UNIVAC. Target started in 1962 and did a number of films for Sperry and Remington-Rand in the 1960s and early 1970s according to their customer profiles in Business Screen Magazine.

Visit our digital archives to view additional films, videos, and photographs from the Sperry-UNIVAC collection

Kevin Martin is the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Audiovisual Collections & Digital Initiatives at Hagley Museum and Library.