All great ideas start as conversations. “I hate having to…” “I wish I could…” “Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a way to…”
Long before there were computers, there were lots of different conversations about computers, what they might be, what they might do, how we would use them, and how they would use us. The computers we use today can trace their lineage back to punch cards for controlling looms, to Hollerith cards for processing census data, to the Babbage machine, to the bombes that Bell Labs and National Cash Register built for WWII code-breaking, to the invention of Boolean logic, vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuit chips, and ultimately the multicore processors we use today.
For the longest time, there wasn’t such a thing as computer science. There was a branch of mathematics that dealt with logic systems, but that existed somewhere in the realm between philosophy and puzzles: If the man who lives in the green house drives a blue car, then which twin is lying? So for the longest time, most of the conversations about computers existed in the realm of science fiction.
Early tales about computers were purely speculative, informed more by imagination than by technology, but as the possibilities of information processing expanded beyond simple data diddling, so did the scale of the stories.
Here, in part one, we list 25 of the 50 most memorable computers in science fiction.
The Machine. E.M. Forster’s short story from 1909, “The Machine Stops,” gave us the first real computer in literature. The Machine was a vast worldwide device that provided all the necessary services of life support for humanity, plus e-mail and entertainment. Considering the year it was written, when air travel, automobiles and electricity were not yet commonplace, this is one of the most visionary tales ever written.
Helga. In 1927, legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang created the classic vision of the future, “Metropolis.” The film is still admired today, and almost all of the lost footage has been found and restored to the most recent Blu-ray release, finally giving us a sense of Lang’s original vision. In that film, Rotwang, the mad scientist, creates a fantastic robot called Helga, who later masquerades as a human to stir up revolution among the workers who toil feverishly inside the giant machineries of the city.
The worldwide network in “For Us, The Living.” Robert A. Heinlein’s first novel, “For Us, The Living,” was written in 1938, but remained unpublished until 2003, possibly because some of its content may have been too risqué for contemporary readers, (and even the standards of what was allowed to be mailed through the US Postal Service). The story tells of a 1939 man who awakens in 2086, and it portrays a vastly different future, including a worldwide communication system that the female lead uses for phone calls, shopping, news, entertainment, and the production and sale of dance videos.
Positronic Brains. Isaac Asimov began writing about robots for editor John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction in 1941. His first story was “Runaround.” Asimov is fairly credited with the invention of the word “robotics” as well as the Three Laws Of Robotics. (Later, he added a zeroth law.)
Law Zeroth: A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
Law One: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, unless this would violate a higher-order law.
Law Two: A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with a higher-order law.
Law Three: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with a higher-order law.
Joe. Murray Leinster, often called “the dean of science fiction” until Robert A. Heinlein took that title away from him, accurately described the first real personal computer in “A Logic Named Joe,” published in the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. A “logic” was a television screen with a keyboard attached, connected to a worldwide information network. It provided news, shopping, encyclopedic answers, video phone calls, entertainment and more—including porn. The story is told from a service technician’s point of view and tells what happens the day that something in one of the logics triggers an awakening throughout the entire network.
EPICAC. Kurt Vonnegut worked hard not to be known as a science fiction writer, but many of his works contained elements of outrageous science fiction and fantasy. In “Player Piano,” published in 1952, he postulated a nationwide computer authority tasked with managing the economy of the U.S. EPICAC was named after an over-the-counter poison-antidote that induced vomiting. It is also mentioned in several of his other works.
The computer used by monks at a Tibetan lamasery. In Arthur C. Clarke’s short story from 1953, “The Nine Billion Names Of God,” the monks bought the machine to generate all the possible names of God instead of having to do it by hand. Upon completion of the task, the universe will end. The story concludes: “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”
R. Daneel Olivaw. Isaac Asimov’s novel from 1953, “The Caves Of Steel,” details the police work of Elijah Bailey and his robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. They returned the 1956 sequel, “The Naked Sun.” Asimov once said they were his favorite characters to write.
Answer. In Fredric Brown’s single-page short story from 1954, “Answer,” a supercalculator is created by the networking of all the computing machines on 96 billion planets. The creator of the machine asks the first question: “Is there a God?” The machine responds: “Yes, now there is a God.”
The Interocitor. “This Island Earth,” a 1955 movie, based on the 1952 novel by Raymond F. Jones, portrayed the interocitor as a communications device, a remotely-controlled laser-like weapon, and possibly also a computer. The complete functions of the interocitor were never fully described.
The Great Machine. In 1956, MGM studios produced “Forbidden Planet,” a brilliant futuristic version of Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest.” The Great Machine was a gigantic computer, 20 miles square, built inside Altair IV for the purpose of allowing its builders to transcend their physical existence by creating matter out of pure thought. Instead, their entire civilization disappeared in a single night. Despite their own advanced intelligence, they weren’t able to predict that the Great Machine would unleash the terrible monsters of their own dark subconscious minds.
Robby the Robot. Also from “Forbidden Planet.” Using Krell super-science, Dr. Morbius constructs a humanoid robot to do his household chores and synthesize things like alcohol and diamonds. Robby was unable to bring harm to any human being. Although never directly stated, this was a direct reference to Asimov’s Three Laws. Robby also appeared in “The Invisible Boy,” several episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “The Monkees,” “The Addams Family,” “Wonder Woman,” “Columbo,” “Mork & Mindy,” “The Love Boat,” “Earth Girls Are Easy,” “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” and many other films and TV episodes, ensuring Robby’s place as a cultural icon.
Brainiac. One of Superman’s archenemies. Super-intelligent, Brainiac first appeared as a green-skinned alien in 1958, but sometimes he’s portrayed as a humanoid computer.
The Old Man in the Cave. In this episode of the original “Twilight Zone” TV series, the inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic town depend on “the old man” to give them instructions about what is safe and what is not. When the cave is opened, “the old man” is revealed as a computer. Despite the accuracy of his advice, the townspeople are so enraged they destroy the machine. (And without its guidance, they subsequently die.)
The Batcomputer. Down in the Batcave, the fabulously wealthy, somewhat deranged, animal-impersonating crime-fighter keeps tabs on all the villains threatening Gotham with a large punch-card mainframe (as seen in the very campy TV series “Batman”).
The Robot. The TV series “Lost in Space” started out in 1965 as an adventure series, but quickly devolved into a kiddy-show centered on the adventures of spoiled brat Will Robinson, the villainous Dr. Smith, and the unnamed robot—a wheeled rebuild of Robby the Robot. Played by Bob May, the robot had just enough intelligence to holler, “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”
The Enterprise Computer. From “Star Trek,” of course. The starship Enterprise had a state-of-the-art duotronic device installed in its bridge. Voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the unnamed computer would answer any question with an immediate promise: “Working.” A few seconds later, the computer would deliver a response calculated to create a frown of frustration on Captain Kirk’s face.
Additional computers on “Star Trek” included:
Landru, a planet-controlling computer seen in “The Return of the Archons” (1967)
Vaal, a Godzilla-headed weather-controlling computer seen in “The Apple” (1967)
M5, an experimental computer that went berserk in “The Ultimate Computer” (1968)
Beta 5, the main database of pseudo-secret agent Gary Seven, in the episode (and failed spin-off pilot) “Assignment: Earth” (1968)
The Oracle, a computer controlling a generation-ship in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” (1968)
Colossus. In the 1966 novel of the same name, by D.F. Jones, all of the military resources of the United States were put under the control of a super-computer named Colossus. In the 1970 film “Colossus, The Forbin Project,” Colossus establishes communication with Guardian, its counterpart in the Soviet Union. The two computers link to take control over the human race. Two subsequent novels detail the eventual revolt by humans and the fall of Colossus.
Mycroft Holmes. Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo- and Nebula-award winning novel from 1966, “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress,” tells of a lunar super-computer, “Mike” who becomes self-aware and eventually helps conduct a revolution against an oppressive Earth government. Mike creates a CGI doppelganger named Adam Selene to represent itself to the human revolutionaries, one of the first predictions of computer-generated avatars.
AM. In Harlan Ellison’s Hugo-award winning short story from 1967, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” AM is a super-computer that has brought about the near-extinction of humanity. AM transforms the hero into an enormous blob of jelly with no mouth, giving the story its title.
HAL 9000. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name, HAL is the sentient computer controlling the spaceship Discovery One. The exquisitely polite HAL malfunctions and kills four crewmembers when it starts to fear that the humans will stop it from completing the secret part of the mission—finding out what that damn monolith was doing on the moon. In the sequel, “2010: The Year We Make Contact,” we meet HAL’s counterpart, SAL 9000. Arthur C. Clarke said it was purely coincidental that the letters in “HAL” are all one letter away from the letters in “IBM.”
HARLIE. Otherwise known as Human Analogue Replicant, Life Input Equivalents, it was a self-aware, problem-solving device and hero of David Gerrold’s first novel, “When HARLIE Was One” (a Hugo- and Nebula-award nominee, assembled in 1972 from four novelettes previously published in Galaxy magazine). HARLIE perplexed his human programmers by asking questions like, “What is love?” and “What does it mean to be human?” The novel contains the first use of the term “computer virus,” along with an accurate description of how a virus could spread via telephone.
Bomb 20. From the 1974 movie “Dark Star,” directed by John Carpenter and written by Dan O’Bannon. Sgt. Pinback (played by Dan O’Bannon) has to talk a sentient nuclear bomb out of exploding. He fails.
Mother. Also in the movie “Dark Star,” Mother is the ship-board computer. More on this one shortly.
The Tabernacle. Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling lent their considerable talents to John Boorman’s confused and otherwise forgettable science-fantasy film from 1974 “Zardoz,” involving a giant flying head and a silly sideways reference to L. Frank Baum. The Tabernacle was the artificial intelligence controlling the Vortex. (Do not be confused, this is not a cult classic. It is only on this list because no amount of brain bleach can get the ridiculous image of the giant flying head out of your memory.)
In Part Two, we’ll list 25 more memorable computers, from 1978 to present day.
David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.