INSIDE THE MACHINE by Megan Prelinger


Art and Invention in the Electronic Age
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A highly original cultural history of 20th-century technology examined through the lens of commercial art.

Cultural historian and archivist Prelinger (Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962, 2010) has cultivated what appears to be a novel niche of research in the geek-obsessive history of popular science. She chronicles how the commercial graphic representation of electronic gadgets developed over the 20th century, and she features the original black-and-white images used to inform the public (or in many cases, other businesses) of these technological breakthroughs. According to the author, one of the first dilemmas that confronted the unheralded graphic artists in the scientific field was deceptively simple: how do you depict the flow of invisible electrons? This erudite study begins around the late 1930s and early 1940s, somehow managing to not only make the origins of vacuum tubes informative and accessible to a lay audience, but also to make them a compelling subject for discussion. “The tube itself was a marvel of containment,” writes Prelinger. “Its form echoed that of paperweights and snow globes, and its fragile constitution made it both a novelty and a delicacy.” Even more impressive than the author’s textual insights are the often wildly imaginative old-school advertisements she cites, including more than 150 well-chosen examples of American scientific achievement as depicted by the industry’s best commercial artists. The book's panoramic reach covers crystals and electromagnetic research, transistors, circuit boards, early punchcard computing, space electronics, cybernetics, and more. On an even more interesting note, Prelinger concludes with some eyebrow-raising insights into the future of technology, including one in which she envisions organic and mechanical systems merging (with computers becoming “biodegradable”), with the role of the graphic designer shifting toward industrial design rather than continuing with the interpretive commercial art of the past.

Sophisticated in its grasp of science and technological history but also accessible to general readers.

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-393-08359-0
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2015


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