Taking Things Seriously (8)

By: John Keen
December 19, 2019

One in a series of posts reprinting true stories about significant objects from the 2007 collection Taking Things Seriously (Princeton Architectural Press), edited by Joshua Glenn and designed by Carol Hayes. For contemporary reviews of the book, click here; for info on Josh Glenn and Rob Walker’s ongoing Project:Object operation, click here.


Everyone who sees this computer cabinet has the same reaction: “What the hell is that thing?” “Oh, just my stereo,” I reply. It’s about five feet tall and three and a half feet wide with Star Trek-era modern brushed aluminum and aquatinted glass doors that weigh about fifty pounds each. A metal label identifies it thusly: Control Data Corporation Peripheral Controller.

I acquired it at a surplus auction at the University of Texas in 1985. I was told the unit had cost a quarter of a million dollars; I got it for ten dollars. I dismantled it, saving all the hardware and labeling the heavy panels, and spent the next ten years hauling the pieces from place to place. Finally, in 1996, I slowly reassembled the thing. In an attempt to justify all the space it took up, I removed most of the circuit boards and modified the interior to hold my stereo and records.

I actually hate modern design — my tastes run to the Victorian and antique — and I’m not too crazy about computers, either. So why am I so fond of this uber-white elephant? I suppose it’s a souvenir of my abortive engineering career and evidence that perhaps I was only interested in the historic and aesthetic aspects of technology all along — I was never going to be happy writing software or solving differential equations. It also reminds me of visiting my dad’s office as a kid, where there were rooms full of similar IBM computers, and my sister and I would spend hours typing out insults on punch cards to amuse ourselves.

Most people have never seen anything like my big, obsolete, all-transistor pre-integrated circuit shell of a computer. Now it’s another antique, an artifact that reminds me of a time when the future seemed both exciting and foreboding.

TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY: William Drenttel on ARTICHOKE | Dmitri Siegel on BIG BOTTOM EXCITER | Greg Klee on SANTA | Carol Hayes on “THINGS” SAMPLER | Tom Frank on WWI HELMET | Beth Daniels on PENCIL SHARPENER | Chika Azuma on GRAMMYFOAM | John Keen on COMPUTER CABINET | Josh Glenn on BAUDELAIRE DEATH MASK | Luc Sante on POSTER FRAGMENTS | Becky Neiman on CHEESE BOX | Rosamond Purcell on BREAD | Paul Maliszewski on RUBBER STAMP.


SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.