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The Fantastically Geeky Ads That Gave Rise To The Tech Industry

Megan Prelinger’s new book, Inside The Machine, offers a fascinating visual history of technology through the lens of the commercial art that helped popularize it.

In the period between the advent of the light bulb in the 19th century and the space race of the 1960s, new technology emerged at an exhilarating speed. As electronics like light bulbs, telephones, radios, and TVs made their way into people’s living rooms, the companies that produced them were faced with an interesting dilemma: How to describe these new products–which relied on an invisible process of moving electrons–to the general public?

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Thus the inventive ads, magazine covers and graphic design of the early tech industry, and the subject of Megan Prelinger’s book Inside The Machine: Art and Invention In The Electronic Age. From modernist paintings of the silicon transistor to drawings of mid-century robots to Paul Rand’s iconic Westinghouse Electric logo, Prelinger takes readers on a fantastically geeky visual tour of tech industry history as seen through the lens of the commercial art that helped popularize it.

“Artists bridged the gap between invention and understanding, between business and industry, and between technology and the public,” writes Prelinger in her introduction. In the mid-20th century, these graphic artists were commissioned by companies like Bell Laboratories and General Electric–which were research science institutions as well as commercial manufacturers–and tech-forward publications like Scientific American and Fortune. Their work was reflective of the popular styles of the time, especially as American commercial art met European modernism. And they were tasked with the job of making sense of concepts as unprecedented and complex as vacuum tubes and robotics.

Some of the artwork depicts technologies so outdated that it’s hard to believe they were ever regarded as cutting edge. In a pamphlet produced to help Bank of America’s employees explain their new automated payroll system, for example, there’s a delightfully abstract image of a punch card. A 1950s illustration for Business Week depicts a circuit board alongside a variety resistors and capacitors.

But these are more than merely kitschy old advertisements. A modernist Texas Instruments ad that promoted Gordon Teal’s silicon transistor, for example, is laden with symbology. The desert backdrop was meant to convey that Texas Instruments was a new heavyweight in the field and that the tech industry was pushing westward. “The sand stands for silicon, and the desert landscape stands for the very ‘west’ness of what would become known as Silicon Valley: Fairchild Electronics, the Stanford Research Institute, Hewlett-Packard, and many more,” writes Prelinger.

These days, the tech industry is firmly settled in the Silicon Valley and electronics are steadily shrinking from view. With Inside the Machine, Prelinger brings us back to a time when devices benefited from their visibility, and graphic artists were key players in connecting art and technology.

You can buy the book here, and check out some of the delightfully retro tech-industry advertisements in the gallery above.

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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