One of the pleasures of working on a humorous history of
computing (which is growing into the
“A Year of 379 Computing
Days”
website, is
to come across intriguing “out of left field” questions. This
article was triggered by a blog post called “Trying to Find
the First Computers in Comic Books” by John F. Ptak at his
excellent
“JF Ptak Science Books” site.

Ptak used the
Grand Comic Database (GCD)
to search for comics that mention
“computer”, and the earliest match was apparently a 12-page
story called “Superman Fights the Super-Brain!” in Superman
#60, dated September/October 1949. Part of the splash page
and a panel from the story are shown below.

Superman #60The Super-Brain

This seemed a tad late in the Golden Age of comics, bearing
in mind the widespread publicity surrounding the announcement
of the ENIAC in February 1946. This is typified by the item in
The New York Times on February 15, entitled “Electronic
Computer Flashes Answers, May Speed Engineering” (one of the
article’s pictures is shown below), and a
Movietone
newsreel

which you can find on YouTube.

The ENIAC

A jolly piece in the June issue of Mechanix Illustrated was
called “The Army Brain” (since the ENIAC’s construction was
funded by the US Army), and naturally featured a picture of
one its plug boards superimposed on a brain.

The Army Brain

If anything, there had been an even bigger media storm a
few years before during the release of the IBM Automatic
Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), later known as the
Harvard Mark I. News stories started appearing after the
machine was officially presented to the university on August
7, 1944. For example, on that day, The Boston Daily Globe
published “Harvard Gets Huge Calculator: 51-Foot Machine Costs
$250,000, Took Six Years”. The accompanying picture is
below:

The ASCC in the Globe

Two nationwide publications about the Mark I appeared in
October: “Robot Mathematician Knows All The Answers” in
Popular Science and “Harvard’s Robot
Super-Brain” in The American Weekly.

ASCC In The American Weekly

Talk of the Harvard Mark I and the ENIAC inevitably brings
us to the knotty question of “What is a computer?” As the
original name states, the ASCC was considered a
calculator at the time, and historians tend to agree because
of its lack of stored program capabilities. However, the ENIAC
was also missing this feature, at least until it was upgraded
in 1948, and its “C” stood for “Computer”. In any case, as the
titles of the newspaper articles show, the popular
nomenclature for the new-fangled technology leaned heavily on
robots, “thinking” machines, and “super” brains.

Another Gordian knot is the meaning of “comic book”. For
these early years, GCD focuses on those esteemed USA
publications created after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s
introduction of Superman in 1938. GCD has much less
information on older newspaper comic strips or magazine
cartoon gags. Just because GCD returns no comics mentioning
Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, or its successors, such
as the machines built by Per Georg Scheutz in the 1850s,
doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

Even a more likely topic, such as Vannevar Bush’s
differential analyzer, or the version built at the University
of Pennsylvania in the 1930’s, returns no matches at GCD.
However, several popular write-ups appeared in the press,
including “Electric Brain Weighs Three Tons” in the August
1935 issue of the magazine Science and Mechanics. It featured
some inspiring pictures:

Penn State Analyzer

A UK differential analyzer, constructed from Meccano by
Douglas Hartree and Arthur Porter, debuted at the University
of Manchester in January 1934, costing a princely £20. In
1947, UCLA’s College of Engineering had a massive one
assembled for them by General Electric – some 30 feet long by
9 feet wide. The proximity of Hollywood meant that the machine
starred in several 1950’s sci-fi movies, including Destination
Moon
(1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), and Earth vs. the
Flying Saucers
(1956). Sadly it, and its siblings, never
seemed to make it into comic books.

After some deep thought, I decided to define “computer”
with the aid of a simple visual test: if the comic’s machine
features identifiable arms and legs then it’s a “robot”, not a
“computer”. Additionally, any machine using human brains,
perhaps inside a cyborg-like shell, or floating in a fish
bowl, are excluded. I also instigated a points system to
measure the “realness” of the computer, which boiled
down to discounting science fiction elements, including 3D
holographic projections, advanced AI reasoning, and the
ability to understand and converse in English. Essentially, I
was looking for machines that were similar to the ASCC,
ENIAC, UNIVAC, IBM 702, and other computers of the late 1940’s
and early 1950’s.

 

So What Comic Book is the Winner?

After much anguished hand-wringing, I narrowed down the
finalists for the “First Appearance of a Real Computer in a
Comic Book” to three possibilities, two runner-ups, and a
lovely Batman comic that I had to include because of the
device’s outlandish user interface. So six comics in all.

The winner is: “Machine of Schemes”, a 12-page Wonder Woman
story which appeared in Comic Cavalcade #29, with a cover date
of October-November 1948 (which probably meant it appeared on
newsstands in August). The script was by the talented Joye
Hummel (Joye Murchison Kelly), with pencils by Harry Peter. It
features Wonder Woman and a Professor Calculus (no relation to
Tintin’s Calculus) developing a “thinking machine”.
Inevitably, the machine is stolen by a criminal, Crime-Brain
Doone, who intends to use it plan a heist of Fort Knox. The
machine is depicted in the panel below:

Comic Cavalcade #29

It’s quite clearly based on a picture of the ASCC like the
one in The Boston Daily Globe that I included earlier.

The length of time between the appearance of the comic
(August 1948) and the ASCC (August 1944) is probably due to
the well-known backlog of Wonder Woman comics at the time. One
documented example is the script for Comic Cavalcade #25,
cover date February–March 1948, which was actually completed
in August 1946.

The comic book artist, Harry Peter (shown below),
was perhaps drawn to
the futuristic design of the ASCC’s cabinet by Norman Bel
Geddes, which was added at the insistence of IBM chairman
Thomas Watson Sr. The ASCC’s designer, Howard Aiken, was
known to not like it, considering that the $50,000 expenditure
could have been better used on additional hardware.

Harry Peter and Joye Hummel

Joye Hummel’s story, as might
be expected, is rather light
on technical details, although the panel above does mention
that the device uses “1272 calculating machines” and “8950
radio tubes”. Several newspaper articles about the ASCC
state that it employed 72 tiers of “adding machines”, but it
was a relay-based device without radio (i.e. vacuum) tubes.

Hummel was the first woman to write for Wonder Woman, but
the established policy of crediting scripts to the “Charles
Moulton” pen name meant that she didn’t receive much
recognition. That changed in the 1970’s when Gloria Steinem
and Ms. magazine reclaimed Wonder Woman for feminism, and had
her appear on the cover of the first issue underneath the
banner “Wonder Woman for President.” Steinem also edited a
hardback compilation of Wonder Woman stories from the late
1940s, split into four sections – origins, sisterhood,
politics and romance. Several Hummel pieces appear there,
including the amazingly good “When Treachery Wore a Green
Shirt!” from Sensation Comics #81,
September 1948, which has Wonder Woman confronting
the xenophobic Dr. Frenzi, whose Green Shirts are attempting
to “take back America for Americans” and not ‘let foreigners
take our jobs’. This story was so good
that it earned a mention in Fredric Wertham’s infamous book
“Seduction of the Innocent” (1954) as an example of how comics
portrayed the world as a violent and hateful place, unsuitable
for children.

Wonder Woman in Ms.
 
 

Wonder Woman Ms. Book
 
 
 
 

Seduction of the Innocent

The best known real-life woman associated with the ASCC was
Grace Hopper, who became its third (or perhaps fourth)
programmer in July 1944. The first two were Robert Campbell
and Richard Bloch, with Campbell also assigned to supervise
the construction of the machine at IBM. Campbell and
Bloch reappear later in our story.

 

Some Earlier Possibilities

I found two other computer-like machines that appeared
before the Wonder Woman story:

  • “The Machine That Thinks Like a Man!”, a 13-page story
    about the Flash (the Golden Age variety) in Flash Comics #52,
    with a cover date of April 1944. It was scripted by Gardner Fox
    and drawn by Martin Naydel.

     

  • “The Incredible Calculator”, an 8-page Captain Marvel
    story from Captain Marvel Adventures #53, which appeared in
    February 1946. It was written by Otto Binder and penciled by
    C. C. Beck.

The Flash story features a “mechanical brain” which looks
not unlike the disembodied head of a giant robot:

Flash Comics #52

The machine utilizes “discs” to store “all knowledge known
to man”, and is “controlled by four electronic tubes”. The
rather unsettling stuff on the top of its head
are cables not human brain matter.

The Captain Marvel story also has a “thinking
machine”, utilizing gear levers, a speaker, and perhaps a
screen (although it never displays anything):

Captain Marvel #53

The story touches on whether a machine can be cleverer than
the man who built it, a white-smocked Professor Smott. Smott
believes it can, while Professor Sneever, “the great
mathematician,” thinks not. At one point, the machine
correctly performs an actual calculation, (68005 / 2345 899)
producing 26,071, and later suffers a short-circuit when a
mouse runs into its “cogs”.

Brainiac in Comics
The piece was written by Otto
Binder who went on to introduce many of the beloved elements
of the Superman books, including Supergirl, the Legion of
Super-Heroes, the Bottle City of Kandor, Krypto the Super Dog,
the Phantom Zone, Lucy Lane, Beppo the Super Monkey, and
Titano the Super Ape. Most relevant to computing, Binder also
created the villain Brainiac, a green-skinned alien cyborg, in
Action Comics #242, dated July 1958. There’s heated debate
over the origin of the Brainiac name. The DC comics editors
appear to have come up with it by combining “brain” and
“maniac,” rather than “brain” and ENIAC as some pundits like
to claim. In particular, the editor, Mort Weisinger, published
a brief note
about the name in Superman #167, dated February 1964:

Brainiac Editorial

Berkeley’s Brainiac, which stood for “Brain-Imitating
Almost-Automatic Computer”, actually debutted in 1958 after
Berkeley had a falling out with business partner Oliver
Garfield. The pair had released the “Geniac” (Genius
Almost-Automatic Computer) educational toy in 1955, and the
Brainiac was Berkeley’s response after the pair parted
company. Berkeley was an important non-academic computing
pioneer – he co-founded the Association for Computing
Machinery, was the author of the first popular book on
computing, “Giant Brains, or Machines That Think” (1949), and
the editor of the first computer magazine, The Computing
Machinery Field
(1952). As a naval officer during WWII,
Berkeley had worked with Howard Aiken on the ASCC, but the two
didn’t get on. At one point Berkeley suggested that Aiken read
Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
(1936). He was well aware of all the “IAC” machines operating
at the time, including the MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer,
Numerical Integrator, and Computer) developed by Nicholas
Metropolis in the early 1950’s, and partly named by Metropolis
in the (vain) hope of stopping the proliferation of silly
“IAC” acronyms; John von Neumann may have suggested the name
to him.

Giant Brains, or Machines That Think
 
 
 

The Brainiac toy

 

What About “Computer”?

The aim of my search was to find the first real computer to
appear in a comic. The ASCC fits the bill, but the story, and
indeed all the other pieces that I’ve mentioned, never use the
word “computer”, preferring some mix of “calculator”,
“thinking”, “robot”, “machine”, and/or “brain”.

The first “computer” in a comic book pops up surprisingly
late in the Golden Age, in a 1-page text piece about “Speed
Kings”, focusing on racing cars, baseball pitchers, and the
“robot brain”. It appeared in Dilly #1, dated May-June 1953, a
comic edited by Charles Biro (shown on the right).

Dilly #1
 
 

Charles Biro

Today, Biro is possibly best known for creating the 1950’s
comic Crime Does Not Pay, which also ran afoul of Fredric
Wertham in “Seduction of the Innocent”.

The RAYDAC
In the text above, Biro doesn’t explicitly name the
machine, but it’s Raytheon’s RAYDAC (Raytheon Digital
Automatic Computer), a one-of-a-kind device built for the U.S.
Navy. Work began on it in 1949, and it became operational in
July 1953 at the Naval Air Missile Test Center at Point Mugu,
California.

The calculation speeds mentioned in the text are mostly
correct, except for “7900 subtractions” which is probably a
typo since the RAYDAC performed additions and subtractions
using the same hardware. The piece is also right in saying
that one of RAYDAC’s novel features was a built-in automatic
error detection subsystem. Robert Campbell and Richard Bloch
(of ASCC fame) worked for Raytheon at the time, and designed
the RAYDAC.

The computer ‘doodle’ that accompanies the article has
little to do with the actual RAYDAC (shown on the right).

 

We Want Pictures!

If the Dilly mention isn’t satisfactory, then when was a
“computer” first drawn in a comic book story? For that we must
take a trip to July 1958, to the 10-page story, “The
Traitorous Challenger” in Challengers of the Unknown #2,
possibly scripted by Dave Wood and Jack
(“the King”) Kirby (shown below on the left),
and drawn by Kirby. Two panels from
the story show Kirby’s brilliant artwork:

Dave Wood
 
Jack Kirby
 
 

Challengers #2 1Challengers #2 2

The first panel refers to the machine as a “calculator”,
but “computer” appears in the second panel. Although the
machine isn’t named, the lady in the lab coat is June Walker,
an engineering genius and archaeologist, who joined the
all-male Challengers for many adventures as an “honorary” or
“girl” Challenger. She made her first appearance in the
Challengers story “ULTIVAC is Loose!” in Showcase #7 from
March-April 1957, also written by Dave Wood and Jack
Kirby, and drawn by Kirby. Although the “ULTIVAC” name is very
suggestive, the machine takes the form of a giant blue robot
for most of the story:

ULTIVAC

It’s only in last panel that ULTIVAC is converted into a
“stationary calculating machine”:

Showcase #7

However, ULTIVAC is never referred to as a “computer” in
Showcase #7, and the female “Director of Operations” seen
above is called June Robbins, not June Walker. There’s also
the little matter of the lady’s hair-coloring, changing from
brunette to blond.

 

Bonus Round:
A User Interface Suitable for the Batman

Giant props, including cameras, cash registers, pinball
machines, and sewing machines, were a staple of Golden and
Silver Age Batman adventures. A variety of talented artists
deployed them, including Lew Schwarz, Dick Sprang, Jim Mooney,
and Sheldon Moldoff.

A commonly recurring object was the giant typewriter, which
made its first appearance in “The Man with the Automatic
Brain!” in Batman #52, dated February 1949.
It was written by
Bill Finger, with artwork by Schwarz. The villain of the piece
is “The Thinker” who is using the typewriter as a peripheral
for his equally massive “Thinking Machine” housed in at least
four giant sculptured heads of famous thinkers, including
Edgar Allan Poe, Euclid, Lucrezia Borgia, and a fourth bust
whose name I cannot make out!:

Batman #52 busts

One of the Thinker’s men types instructions with a small
typewriter, connected to the big version, which
punches out a massive card.

Batman #52 typewriter

The card is fed by hand into a slot in the side of the most
appropriate bust, which answers the question via paper tape
output from its mouth:

Batman #52 bust internalsBatman #52 desk

Note that several men are needed to carry the card up a
jury-rigged set of scaffolding The paper tape output is
somehow fed into the Thinker’s desk which displays the answer
on a giant screen.

Later in the story, the “Poe” head is asked to deduce
Batman’s identity. Fortunately, Alfred (Bruce Wayne’s butler)
manages to throw a monkey wrench into its card reading slot.
This causes Poe to malfunction, as depicted by assorted “pop”,
“crackle”, and “bang” sounds, and it decides that Batman is
actually Alfred.


Dr. Andrew Davison


E-mail: ad@fivedots.coe.psu.ac.th



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