In the process of pulling together my presentation for September’s SerenaA serendipity panel at the ISEA conference in Istanbul, I did a bit more research on beautiful machines. The talk showcased a few of the analogue solutions that artists, scientists and theoreticians have produced as “metphors in action” (as phrased by Kat & her Enquiry Machine No 1 collaborator Julien McHardy), situating this part of the Serendipity Engine project within the context of the analogue computer space.
Along the way, I discovered an entire BBC Radio 4 documentary from 2002 (audio file) about the MONIAC Computer, initially devised as a teaching tool by Bill Phillips in 1949 to model the British economy but later used as a factor in decision making.
Programme 4 - Water on the Brain
Shortly after World War II, a New Zealand engineer started a sociology degree at the London School of Economics. Bill Phillips had already shown remarkable courage and ingenuity, winning an award for bravery in the Far East, then making electrical gadgets as a prisoner of war. He designed simple immersion heaters for his fellow POWs’ nightly cups of tea; the guards never worked out why the camp lights dimmed around 10 o’clock. He made a simple radio (he’d have been executed if caught) and heard news of the bombing of Hiroshima. At the LSE he didn’t take to sociology but economics fascinated him. He wrote an essay comparing the national economy to a machine pumping coloured water round clear plastic tubes. An older student persuaded him to build one, and it was an immediate success. More than a dozen were made eventually, with Ford buying one and another going to the Central Bank of Guatemala. Within a few years he was a professor and became one of the giants among post-war economists. He died young, but friends and colleagues recall this remarkable man. One “Phillips Machine” is still working at Cambridge University, where leading economist Brian Henry, who helped restore it, recalls seeing this “ingenious teaching device” for the first time. Although he had already studied economics for 3 years, that was the first time he actually understood what the “circular flow of money” was all about, because he could see it.
Here are a few choice quotes from Dr Brian Henry, Director of the Centre for the Centre for International Macroeconomics, Oxford University:
It was such a supreme visual telling of the mechanics of the Keynsian idea that I think all students felt for the first time they started to understand what the basic ideas were all about.
In other words, the machine made visible the hidden inter-relationships between variables.
He then started translating the economics into hydraulics. In other words, from a language he didn’t understand into a language which he did.
This is a beautiful way of saying what Kat says in this quote from her article Exhibiting Ethnographic Knowledge; making sociology about makers of technology in the Jan 2010 issue of Street Signs, about her material-based practice of sense-making:
The process of spatially configuring my sociological arguments on the side of a suburban house and in the space of two glass cabinets at College opened up alternate means of interrogating my ideas. I came to see new relationships and connections between images, objects and texts. I was literally able to stand apart from my work and see it from different perspectives.
Kat and I present the Serendipity Engine tomorrow night at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Get your ticket to the event here.