The First Appearance of a Real Computer in a Comic Book

 

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 #60 The 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 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 1 Challengers #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 (but might be "A Conan Doyle"):

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 internals Batman #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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