The Never-Before-Told Story of the World's First Computer Art (It's a Sexy Dame)

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In the late 1950s, an anonymous IBM employee made a lady from the pages of Esquire come to life on the screen of a $238 million military computer.

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Pin-up program running on an SD Console (Lawrence A. Tipton / Special Thanks SMECC)

During a time when computing power was so scarce that it required a government-defense budget to finance it, a young man used a $238 million military computer, the largest such machine ever built, to render an image of a curvy woman on a glowing cathode ray tube screen. The year was 1956, and the creation was a landmark moment in computer graphics and cultural history that has gone unnoticed until now.

Using equipment designed to guard against the apocalypse, a pin-up girl had been drawn. 

She was quite probably the first human likeness to ever appear on a computer screen. 

She glowed. 

* * *

In the early years of the Cold War, the United States invested billions of dollars into a state-of-the-art computerized air defense system unlike any the world had ever seen. At the time, the threat of nuclear strike came primarily from Soviet bombers penetrating American airspace, so the Air Force, in conjunction with MIT and IBM, created SAGE: Semi-Automatic Ground Environment. It was a project so ambitious that it ranks among the massive scientific programs like the Manhattan Project and Apollo in scope and budget, yet surprisingly few people know about it today.

The SAGE system defended against Soviet attack by combining live radar input with pre-programmed commercial airline flight information to paint a live picture of what should or shouldn't be flying in American airspace. If something looked out of place, SAGE commanders could scramble jets to intercept the unknown object.

Starting in 1958, the Air Force built 21 SAGE centers around the continental U.S. At the heart of each center lay an enormous, 4-story windowless blockhouse that contained two massive AN/FSQ-7 computers. Each computer cost the equivalent of $1.89 billion in today's dollars and occupied half an acre of floor space.

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A typical SAGE blockhouse schematic

The AN/FSQ-7 was an achievement unto itself, for it was the second real-time computer with an electronic graphical display in history. The first was the Whirlwind I, the 1950 precursor to the AN/FSQ-7 that began as an MIT project commissioned by the Navy for flight-simulation purposes.

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Computer frames of the AN/FSQ-7 Computer System, 1958 (MITRE)

At any given time of the day, technicians at each SAGE center kept one of the dual AN/FSQ-7 computers live while the other underwent maintenance. That way, even in an era of unreliable vacuum tubes (of which each computer contained 50,000), SAGE could maintain near 100 percent uptime.

At the top story of every blockhouse lay dozens of OA-1008/FSQ situation display consoles (91 in a typical installation), each hooked to the active AN/FSQ-7 computer, upon which personnel would monitor different segments of airspace in a given defense sector. For example, the SAGE center at Ft. Lee Air Force Station in Virginia was responsible for monitoring a sector which included the Washington, D.C. area.

Each situation display console in the blockhouse contained a specially crafted 19-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) display that could draw vector-based lines or alphanumeric characters on any portion of the screen. One may be familiar with CRTs from their use in television sets, but unlike a television set, the CRT in a situation display console did not paint a top-to-bottom raster-based image on the screen. Instead, it drew lines from any point to any other point arbitrarily, sort of like an electronic Etch-a-Sketch.

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A typical SAGE situation display

Typically, the SAGE computer drew a line-based image of coastline or map on each SD console then overlaid flight vector information and live radar blips. When the operators wanted to identify a certain flight on the screen, console operators had a unique input device at their disposal: the light gun. They simply pointed the light gun at the spot and pulled the trigger. Alphanumeric information that identified the flight would then appear next to it on the screen.

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A SAGE operator at a Situation Display Console, holding a light gun (IBM)

Among this very serious business of detecting incoming nuclear threats, someone decided to commandeer the AN/FSQ-7's computing power and graphical display for something a little more fun. Using a console and one of the two SAGE computers, an enterprising programmer created a graphical interpretation of a pin-up style woman that rendered as line segments on the SD's 19-inch screen. In doing so, the pin-up's programmer created the world's earliest known figurative computer art, and quite possibly the first image of a human being on a computer screen.

In early 1959, 21-year-old Airman First Class Lawrence A. Tipton snapped the only known photo of this pin-up program in action at Ft. Lee. The photo shows the tube of an SD console displaying the outline of woman with her arms held high, cradling her head while emphasizing her bosom. She reclines awkwardly, her legs splayed apart in an uncomfortable but provocative pose that smacks of mid-century pin-up art.

"One day I decided to take pictures for posterity's sake," recalls Tipton, "And those two Polaroids are the only ones that made it out of the building." The other Polaroid is a self-portrait of Tipton himself sitting in front of the AN/FSQ-7's Duplex Maintenance Console. "We used the Polaroid cameras to take pictures of anomaly conditions. When the computers would malfunction, you'd take pictures of those main consoles to diagnose the conditions."

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Lawrence Tipton in front of the Duplex Maintenance Console (Lawrence Tipton)

The pin-up image itself was programmed as a series of short lines, or vectors, encoded on a stack of about 97 Hollerith type punched cards, Tipton recalls. Hollerith punched cards were 7.375 x 3.25 inch paper cards that stored binary data via holes cut through a matrix printed on its surface. Like other 1950s computers, the AN/FSQ-7 used the cards extensively for program input.

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A Hollerith punched card (IBM)

According to Tipton, the program that displayed the pin-up image was a diagnostic that tested data flow between the two SAGE computers on site (referred to as the A and B computers). At the end of every shift, as one computer was about to go offline and switch over to the other, the active machine would begin transferring flight and intercept data to the standby machine so there could be a seamless switch over.

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Benj Edwards is a journalist who specializes in computer and video-game history. He is the editor-in-chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming.

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