• How America Has Always Advertised the Next Golden Age of Computers

    A Brief History of Selling the Future

    At its root, the role of advertising is to generate a sense of longing and desire in the hearts and the minds of consumers. When done well, this ubiquitous marketing tool can transcend its utilitarian purpose—the selling of tangible goods and services—to become a cultural artifact, collectible, and mass-produced objet d’art.

    Preceded by business machine advertisements in the 1930s, computer ads and sales brochures first started appearing in the late 40s, and followed many of the same graphic trends that characterized more standard consumer fare by brands such as Coca-Cola or Chevrolet, though some notable differences did occur. To understand the driving factors behind the selling of technology in the postwar era, one must consider the explosion that occurred—literally and figuratively—when the first atomic bomb blast went off in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. It was the moment when the impossible became possible, and a once far-reaching scientific concept became a cold, hard reality.

    A testament to man’s ingenuity, intelligence, and ignorance all at once, it ushered in a new Atomic Era that would carry over into the decades to come.

    Technology companies were, in particular, at the forefront of this new cultural zeitgeist. As the Cold War expanded, and with it the ever-present specter of the Red Threat, America was in a race to be one step ahead of the Communists at all costs. Consequently, the United States government gave tech companies generous funds and resources to develop all manner of defense-minded devices.

    Between 1952 and 1955, 80 percent of IBM’s (International Business Machines) total revenue was generated by SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), a program implemented by the U.S. government as an air defense system against Russian nuclear missile attacks. By 1958, more than 7,000 IBM staffers were working on the project, the final price tag of which is estimated to be around 8 billion dollars. The scientific and financial results gained from this complex, decade-long endeavor assisted IBM in making huge strides ahead with its growing line of commercial mainframe computers.

    Meanwhile, Honeywell, another giant American company, was engaged in making short-range nuclear missiles and unmanned aircraft for the U.S. Air Force. It was from these lucrative government contracts that the Midwest-based firm, which originally produced thermostats, was able to start selling computers for commercial business purposes by the mid-50s. Defense iconography was implemented accordingly in each company’s advertising material.

    A focal point of defense iconography, missiles appeared repeatedly in computer advertisements throughout the 1950s. In a tastefully-restrained Burroughs ad from 1955, a pair of missiles are shown alongside a sober headline which reads, “Electronic computers for guiding or intercepting.”

    Univac, circa 1956.

    Then, in smaller copy down at the bottom, the ad references Burroughs’ “accounting, statistical, and computing machines.” Similarly, a Univac brochure from 1953 serves as a case study on how the 1103A Scientific System is utilized by the U.S. government at the White Sands Missile Range. On the last page, it says, “. . . just one of a complete line of Remington Rand Univac data processing systems available for business and scientific purposes.” The subtext of these defense-minded ads and brochures seems to be that if the military relies on a Burroughs or Remington Rand machine for its missile program, imagine what the exact same computing power could do for one’s business.



    The cosmos—and the upcoming Space Race with the Soviet Union—was another common theme in computer advertising of the 1950s. A sales brochure for Remington Rand shows its Univac system hovering weightlessly among the stars with the headline: “First Choice of Modern Management.” (Never mind the fact that this gargantuan piece of machinery might take up an entire floor of an office building.) With factory automation on the rise, a corollary expansion of business automation (the kind dealing with market analysis, inventory, and payroll) was needed to keep pace with a nation that was eager to spend money on goods for its new homes. Utilizing the iconography of space travel insinuated an alluring office of the future with less tedious work, increased creativity, and higher profit margins.

    Often appearing in conjunction with outer space, the atomic symbol—which emerged as a ubiquitous motif not just in computer ads of the 50s, but a wide range of products and services from cars to banking institutions—was visual shorthand for innovation. It also represented the stark possibilities of nuclear fallout, but advertising agencies took the initiative to put a more positive spin on the formidable symbol. For companies such as Burroughs and Bendix that were in the business of technology and discovery, plastering it on their sales and marketing material was practically a foregone conclusion.

    If unabashed consumerism and abundance were reflected in the regular consumer product ads of the 1950s, computer ads took a slightly more conservative approach. The cost (and size) of mainframe computers dictated that only medium-to-large companies could afford them; as such, computer ads mainly appeared in trade magazines like Fortune. The copy for a 1957 Royal McBee LGP-30 computer breathlessly exclaims, “No more lost time in executing preliminary calculations or modifying equations!” A Sperry Rand ad promises that its Univac file computer will “open up a vast new world of profits.” Typically at the bottom of an ad, a small paragraph would implore its reader to “write for a free brochure” to find out how a given computer could benefit one’s business. Whereas magazine ads were a quick sales pitch, the marketing brochures, at times lavishly produced, were more of a deep dive into the nuances of a particular system. An IBM brochure from 1950 has a section entitled, “Electrons at Work,” which is illustrated with detailed explanations of cathodes, negative electricity, and atoms—hardly everyman terminology of the day. Highly scientific, it spoke to engineers and scientists who must have been working at large manufacturing corporations. This kind of detail was the domain of marketing brochures more so than magazine ads.



    Computer advertisements from the 1950s were divided between two dominant styles: The first was the so-called shirt sleeve style of ad—a holdover from the 1930s and 40s—which tended to include several paragraphs of sales copy, sometimes in the form of a testimonial from a scientist or CEO, alongside decorative headline text and various overlapping elements—the overall result of which was a busy design and a hard sell. The second was a decidedly more sophisticated European Modern style that was gaining traction in the postwar period with the art directors on Madison Avenue. Driven by technology itself, it was oftentimes characterized by organic shapes, sleek lines, minimal ornamentation, and striking juxtapositions. Form followed function with the intent of delivering messages in a clear and direct way. Though they generally lacked humor and wit—qualities that would begin to appear more frequently with the Big Idea ads of the following decade—the more modern computer advertisements and marketing brochures of the 1950s, with their straightforward, no-nonsense approach, seemed inherently well-suited to the engineers, scientists, and business people who they were geared towards.



    Advertising has always been riddled with half-truths, reflecting the culture in a skewed way that belies its inner complexities—and computer ads from this era are no exception. From this vantage point, it was all men in gray flannel suits, industry, the military, and outer space as the connective tissue. However, there was an undercurrent at play that was not reflected in the ads or marketing material. The spirit of discovery and entrepreneurialism that would ultimately bring about the personal computer revolution was revealed as early as 1939 when David Packard and Bill Hewlett, both recent graduates from Stanford University in engineering, started making oscillators in Hewlett’s garage in nearby Palo Alto. Though Hewlett-Packard would not enter the computer market until 1966, the template of self-invention was in place, and it had chosen Silicon Valley, roughly an hour south of San Francisco, as its mecca.

    The Eastern U.S. had its own version—Route 128 in New England, along which dozens of tech firms populated by graduates of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Harvard found their home in the 1950s—but due to a number of factors including a traditional East Coast business model based on vertical integration, proprietary knowledge, and dogged company loyalty, “the Magic Semicircle” did not possess the same innovative synergy as its West Coast counterpart. Almost a complete antithesis to the more confined East Coast mentality was embodied by “the traitorous eight,” a group of employees at Shockley Semiconductor in Mountain View, California. In 1957, dissatisfied with the management style of their boss, William Shockley, eight young scientists broke away to form their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor, which went on to become one of the most influential firms in the early, burgeoning days of Silicon Valley.



    At first glance, computer ads and sales brochures of the 1960s were not drastically different than those of the previous decade—the image of a person sitting at (or standing next to) a hulking piece of machinery; sophisticated arrangements of illustration and type; numbers or words strung out in an artful, almost mathematical way, occasionally veering towards abstraction—but there are several key differences. Indeed, by the end of the 1950s, the industry seems to have reached an unspoken agreement on how to sell tech. Computer ads and sales brochures did not exist in a vacuum and were undoubtedly influenced by larger cultural trends, but viewed as a whole a common language had emerged, just in time for the turbulent ’60s when many standard conventions would be turned on their head.

    As in the previous decade, IBM led the way, not only in terms of sales and popularity, but with top-notch ads courtesy of one of several advertising agencies it employed, including Marsteller, Rickard, Gebhardt & Reed for its data processing division. Such was IBM’s influence that the mainstream media had begun referring to the industry as a whole as “IBM and the seven dwarfs,” with Burroughs, CDC (Control Data Corporation), General Electric, Honeywell, NCR (National Cash Register), RCA (Radio Corporation of America), and Sperry Rand figuring as the diminutive sidekicks. This moniker was a bit biased because although IBM was indeed responsible for dozens of technological innovations and arguably produced the most professional-looking ads and sales brochures, plenty of innovative work was being done outside of the IBM-sphere in the 1950s and 1960s, including non-commercial research facilities such as MIT, Stanford, and Cal Tech.



    Whereas illustration was the preferred choice for art directors in the 1950s, by the 60s photographic techniques began to appear with more and more frequency. Though this trend wasn’t limited only to computers, the new favored medium coincided with an aesthetic shift in the computer itself whereby the appearance of the machine became a consideration.

    After all, what better way to showcase a computer’s attractive qualities than with a photograph? A TEC brochure from 1964 heralds its console’s “outstanding appearance” and “modern, individualized styling tailored to your design.” A Honeywell brochure from 1968 displays the H632’s alluring black and gold façade in photographic detail. Sleek and modern, it looks more like furniture or a kitchen appliance rather than office equipment. It was an enticing selling point for businesses that wanted to add a little extra panache to their work environment to impress clients or visitors.

    Burroughs, 1964.

    The biggest development within the realm of advertising in the 1960s was the emergence of the Big Idea, which grew out of the Creative Revolution. One factor in this evolution was that ad agencies were attempting to connect to a suddenly massive youth culture—baby boomers, who were now becoming teenagers—by utilizing humor, irony, and wit. Rather than pummeling the consumer on top of the head with a hard sell, they used the more subtle art of insinuation. Graphics, or more often photographs, were displayed large on the page accompanied by a tagline or tightly edited sales copy. Of course, not all ads followed this dictum, and within the specialized niche of computer advertising there are even fewer examples, but a few companies such as IBM and Burroughs successfully integrated this concept with some memorable ads from this decade.

    An elegant IBM ad from 1963 shows a close-up of a hand holding seven yellow pencils with the headline, “How many design possibilities is a problem? How many can you afford to explore?” The feeling of frustration is immediate—attempting to solve a complex math equation while using seven different pencils at the same time—but not if you have an IBM computer, the copy implies. Likewise, a striking Burroughs ad from 1964 shows a dramatically-lit photo of its B200 system with the headline, “angry young computer.” Beneath is a short bit of copy, which describes how the B200 can “outdo any computer in its class” and “gets angry” (just like a human!) when people purchase other machines “on the basis of name or initials.” Without mentioning IBM by name, the ad pokes fun at the industry leader while simultaneously touting its own brand in a witty way.

    Computer technology continued to be developed by the military industrial complex well into the 1960s and 70s, but due to unpopular foreign policy, including the United States’ entry into Vietnam in 1965, it became less common for tech companies to advertise their involvement with the government in developing weapons of mass destruction. In all actuality, the youth-driven counterculture movement of the 60s did not just influence the style of computer ads (the Big Idea) or the content (a decreased emphasis on military usage) but the development of computers themselves. As Stewart Brand wrote in a 1995 essay for TIME magazine, “Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the ’60s is the computer revolution.”



    Indeed, the advent of the PC in the 70s was due, in part, to a series of developments by young techies who were rebelling against the notion that only those with money and privileged access (such as monolithic corporations) could use computers. They also believed that if technology and information were freely and readily available to everyone, it would bring about social change and positively impact the world. This philosophy, which Steven Levy outlines in his book Hackers, can be boiled down to several key concepts, including: “Access to computers should be unlimited and total; All information should be free; Mistrust authority—promote decentralization; You can create art and beauty on a computer; Computers can change your life for the better.”

    The philosophical chasm—which had started to show at the seams in the 1950s and 60s—burst wide open in the 70s. On the one hand, you had the old guard—companies such as IBM and the seven dwarfs—still producing cost-prohibitive mainframe computers that most people had never seen or knew much about outside of the occasional magazine ad or fictionalized movie version such as HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the other hand, there was a rapidly growing contingent of young computer enthusiasts who formed groups and clubs for the purpose of sharing knowledge and resources.

    The People’s Computer Company, founded in 1972 in Menlo Park, California, was one such club, whose premier newsletter stated, “Computers are mostly used against people instead of for people, used to control people instead of to free them. Time to change all that.” The Homebrew Computer Club, which met for the first time in founder Gordon French’s garage—also in Menlo Park—in 1975 was another magnet for local computer geeks, including Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who took inspiration from the club to develop the Apple I.



    The fact that these clubs formed within a short distance of each other in the Silicon Valley was the result of a few factors, which John Markoff describes in his book, What the Dormouse Said. Although the East Coast had its own roots in computing, according to Markoff, “the Mid-peninsula, a relatively compact region located between San Jose and San Francisco, became a crucible not only for political protest and a thriving counterculture but also a new set of computing paradigms.” He continues, “Personal computers that were designed for and belonged to single individuals would emerge initially in concert with a counterculture that rejected authority and believed the human spirit would triumph over corporate technology, not be subject to it.” So, in addition to nearby Stanford, which hosted two important research labs starting in the 1960s, the convergence of anti-establishment ideals that were specific to the Bay Area during that time—including the experimental use of LSD, which a number of the scientists from Stanford participated in—set the stage for those living there to think of the computer as an apparatus for social change. Through a series of technological advancements, this finally started coming to fruition in the 1970s.



    While plenty of exciting growth was taking place on the technological front throughout the 1970s, print advertising was suffering a bad hangover from the creative heights it had reached during the previous decade. One factor in the decline in the quality of print ads during this time was the continued rise of TV as the preferred medium for advertising dollars. In addition to a redistribution of funds towards TV commercials, national magazines such as LIFE and LOOK were folding beneath the weight of a declining readership and stagflation.

    On the flipside, due to a fast-growing hobbyist computer culture, a number of technical magazines had materialized to fill the void. Creative Computing started appearing in 1974; Byte, “the small systems journal,” began its run in 1975; Southern California Computer Society started publishing SCCS Interface in 1975; Kilobaud, an offshoot of Byte, materialized in 1977; and Robotics Age and ‘68’ Micro Journal started

    in 1979. While there were a lot of ads to be found in these magazines, they were, for the most part, geared towards all manner of hardware including sockets and memory boards. With a few exceptions, the bulk of these ads were produced in-house and were rather mundane from an aesthetics point of view. Top notch photography, illustration, and typography were not needed to sell a debugging system to a hacker who would have been much more interested in the item’s technical specs than being seduced into opening up his or her pocketbook through clever wordplay and attractive visuals. Still, some of the larger and more ambitious companies such as IBM and Apple made serious attempts at producing quality print ads, and, as in previous decades, sales and marketing brochures continued their tradition of lavish production values and fantasy-promoting ideals.



    In 1977, three preassembled personal computers hit the marketplace, which came to be known as the “1977 Trinity,” a phrase coined by Byte. This trio included the Apple II, Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor), and Tandy TRS-80 Model I. Much like the arrival of the Ford Model T in 1908, widely regarded as the first affordable automobile, these three systems, though not the first personal computers in existence, were the first that made computing accessible to non-hobbyist, middle-class consumers through their relative low-cost and ease of use. It was this new frontier of affordable and accessible PCs—along with a burgeoning home video game market—that would bring about a resurgence in computer advertising, this time geared towards the individual instead of the corporation.

    TEC, 1977

    The late 1970s and early ’80s marks a gold-rush era for the personal computer and its sibling—also a descendant of the microchip—the home video game console, as companies such as Commodore and Atari made money hand-over-fist. Commodore, led by its founder Jack Tramiel, followed up the successful PET with the VIC-20 (Video Interface Chip) in 1981. Priced under $300, sold at regular retailers such as Kmart, and endorsed by Hollywood star William Shatner, it became the first computer to sell over one million units. Amazingly, despite the VIC-20’s success, it would pale in comparison to Commodore’s follow-up, the C64, released in 1982. Widely regarded as one of the most popular computers of all time, the C64 would sell between 10–17 million units.  At $600, it was less than half the cost of the Apple II ($1,395) and IBM PC ($1,355) making it an easy entry point for dozens of first-time computer-users.



    Though Atari did not invent the video game or the home video game console, the company, founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1972, was the first to demonstrate their widespread potential, in the process spawning an entire industry. After the success it experienced with the arcade version of Pong, Atari released the VCS (Video Computer System) in 1975. One year later, the company was sold to Warner Communications for $28 million. An improved home version, the 2600, was soon to follow and achieved massive success when it licensed Space Invaders from Japan-based Taito, helping Atari gross $2 billion in 1980. This number continued to climb until 1983 when the bubble burst in what became known as “the video game crash of 1983.”


    The shift in who the computer was intended for—from business people and corporations in the Atomic Era to individuals beginning in the 1970s—marked a change in the tone of the ads and brochures. Whereas computer advertising in the 1950s and ’60s tended to be straightforward and sophisticated, by the ’80s, in an effort to appeal to a wide range of people, dumbed down humor became more common. A Leeco brochure from 1981 features a morbid office tableau on its cover: In a beige, windowless office with paper strewn about in an apparent printer mishap, seven coworkers exhibit their frustration with software to the extent that one of them is on the verge of hanging himself, another has a gun pointed to his head, while the others sit at their desks in varying levels of distress. While this example is undoubtedly on the extreme end of the spectrum, it nevertheless points towards a general trend towards irreverence, perhaps in an effort to connect with a younger audience.

    SWTPC, 1978

    The fact that many regard 1984 as the birth of the personal computer reveals just how influential Apple’s Macintosh campaign was. Steve Jobs wanted the Mac to be for the “person in the street,” and its advertising campaign, both on TV and in print, was designed accordingly. The commercial, which aired during the Super Bowl (with a viewership of 78 million in 1984) was produced in collaboration with ad agency Chiat\Day and director Ridley Scott. Just as Burroughs did 20 years earlier with a series of ads pitting itself against IBM, the concept for Apple’s Super Bowl commercial was an Orwellian dystopian reality in which people have been reduced to heads by an unnamed corporate entity. Although IBM isn’t specifically mentioned, Big Blue’s presence is cleverly insinuated by way of the commercial’s blue-hued tones. Initially rejected by Apple’s board members, the commercial aired regardless and was such a huge success that it became a water-cooler topic and news story in the weeks that followed. Then there was the print campaign, which tends to be overlooked in relation to the commercial, though it was also radical for the time. Apple purchased all 39 pages of ad space in the 1984 election issue of Newsweek. Simple yet elegant, the ads echoed the same thematic territory as covered in the TV commercial, which boils down to: the new Macintosh is for everyone, and personal computing—specifically Apple—equals democracy.

    NEC, 1981

    The scope of computer advertising expanded during the 1980s and 90s to include everything from security to software. In the previous decade, these types of ads were relegated to technical-oriented publications, but were now appearing in mainstream magazines such as TIME and Newsweek. Capitalizing on the success of Star Wars, a memorable 1986 ad for Maxell depicts a corporate boardroom with C-3PO-esque robots sitting around a table with floppy discs in front of them. The headline states, “When computers get down to business, they move up to Maxell.” Dystopian and AI-gone-wrong implications aside, the ad works because of its sense of humor and straightforward message. By this time, there was no longer a need to explain the technology behind a given product in lengthy sales copy as the targeted audience shifted from business people and engineers to regular consumers. Brand recognition became much more important and this was achieved through a variety of means, off-color humor being but one example. This trend would continue into the following decade, as computer advertising became less about the physical piece of machinery and more about conveying a mood.



    Echoing a poem by Richard Brautigan entitled, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,”  the iconography of natural landscapes ironically became a reoccurring motif in computer advertising towards the end of the millennium, affording an organic touch to an increasingly digital world. First published in 1967, the poem by Brautigan describes “a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony . . . ” Whether interpreted as a naïve prediction of utopia or a biting social critique, it set forth a vision of computers and nature that became a harbinger of technology ads at the end of the century.

    Osborne, 1981

    To wit, an Adobe ad from 1998 shows a full-page photo of a sprawling, manicured lawn with a large UFO-shaped topiary planted in the middle. A man sits beneath it in the shade—a wide grin on his face—with the headline, “Wouldn’t it be nice if your work was impossible to ignore?” A short paragraph below describes how Adobe software can help you stand out in business. Reminiscent of a Big Idea ad in which the reader is rewarded for putting two and two together, the ad makes a case for Adobe without showing the technology but presenting us with an emotion instead. The iconography of nature would continue to appear in various incarnations throughout the decade.



    As the 90s came to a close, mainstream magazines were saturated with computer advertisements. No longer characterized solely by the giant mainframe, the definition of selling tech spun off into a profusion of categories and subcategories of technological peripherals—websites, software, cellular phones, pagers, fax machines, video games, robots and, of course, the computer. Paradoxically, in conjunction with the rise of these various devices (not to mention the Internet), the slump first experienced by print in the 1970s would begin to accelerate as advertising dollars shifted towards digital media. There were exceptions—Wired, for example, began its successful run in 1993 as the first magazine to cover the culture of technology—but, on the whole, the computer, which initially relied on print to bring it to market, was now on the inevitable trajectory towards making that medium obsolete.

    According to Perry Chen, who examined the Y2K phenomenon in a 2014 exhibition called Computers in Crisis, just as “the printing press was, rightfully, feared as an existential threat to oral storytelling traditions,” digital technology “filled this narrative as a consequence of our increasing reliance on computers.” As such, the ’90s marks the end of an era with the ads and sales brochures representing not a complete history of the computer in the second half of the 20th century, but a snapshot of a time when technology was catapulted into public awareness by way of an older, archaic medium.

    Commodore VIC-20, 1982

    A prelude to our increasingly digital world, the Y2K crisis emerged in the final years of the 1990s as a mainstream media frenzy reminiscent of Atomic Era nuclear panic. Magazine editorials, books, and stores—Y2K prep centers where one could purchase survival supplies for the impending doom—began to appear with more and more frequency as the year 2000 approached. The seismic shift that occurred in our collective consciousness during this time period is significant. What we initially understood computers to be—benign devices on which to do your homework, play video games, or keep track of payroll—suddenly morphed into something much more nebulous and nefarious. While many people were wondering whether this computer glitch would spell the end of civilization, Danny Hillis, in a 1999 article for Newsweek, argued that it already had: “We are no longer in complete command of our creations. We are back in the jungle, only this time it is a jungle of our own creation. The technological environment we live within is something to be manipulated and influenced, but never again something to control. There are no real experts, only people who understand their own little pieces of the puzzle. The big picture is a mystery to us, and the big picture is that nobody knows.”


    From Do You Compute? Selling Tech from the Atomic Age to the Y2K Bug 1950-1999. Edited by Ryan Mungia and J.C. Gabel. Used with permission of the publisher, Hat & Beard Press/co-published with Boyo Press. Copyright 2020 by Ryan Mungia

    Ryan Mungia
    Ryan Mungia
    Ryan Mungia is a writer, editor, designer, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 2011, he founded Boyo Press, an independent publishing company, which produces books, zines, and ephemera. When he’s not digging through boxes of old photos, he enjoys architecture, coffee, and surfing.

    More Story
    Megafires and Mass Extinction: Searching for Hope at the End of the Natural World During the Australian megafires of 2019 and early 2020, around 3 billion animals were killed or displaced. Of those animals,...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.