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Blog posts tagged as 'history'

Tuesday Links: Historic film titles, airshows, public figures and Thatcher’s death-gesture

It was a busy week last week, so Friday links have rolled over to Tuesday.

Lots of historical things this week. A brilliantly curated and annotated collection of movie title cards and trailers. A work of incredible devotion by Christian Annyas via @LukeScheybeler:

An early colour autochrome photograph of equally early airshows, via Claes Källarsson:

Some early photos of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Matt Webb says: “There’s something uncanny about these unstudied portraits of people taken before they got to be such presences in the world.”:

And another historical artefact from Steve Jobs on marketing, branding and values, this is why Steve is absolute #1 mind-gangster. Via O’Reilly radar / gnat:

In one of the stranger moments last week Durrell Bishop reminded us of Maggie Thatcher killing a multi-million pound British Airways branding project with a simple gesture:

Introducing BBC Dimensions

About a year ago we did some workshops with the BBC, to look at new ways in which history could be explored and explained using digital media. We came up with 30 or so ideas which got narrowed down to 5 ‘microbriefs’ for possible future prototyping.

BBC History Workshop, July 2009

One of our favourites from the off was an idea we called “Dimensions”.

BBC Dimensions original sketch

From our original concept document:

“We want to bring home the human scale of events and places in history. The Apollo 11 Moon walk explored an area smaller than Trafalgar Square; the distance between your WW1 trench and the enemy could only be as much as from your front door to the street corner.
Dimensions is a feature on websites that juxtaposes the size of historical events with your home and neighbourhood. You’re hearing about the span of the base of the Great Pyramids, or the distance of the book depository from JFK, or the extent of the Great Fire of London… Dimensions overlays this map on a satellite view of where you live.”

Earlier this year we began to design and build a public prototype of the BBC Dimensions concept which we’re putting live today.

It lives at and it’ll be available as a trial for the next few months.

Let me give you a little tour.

BBC - Dimensions
The home page is a collection of what we’ve been calling ‘packages’ – themed collections of ‘Dimensions’. For instance here: ‘The War On Terror, ‘Space’ and ‘Depths’

What’s a Dimension then? Well, basically what it says right there on the homepage: “Dimensions takes important places, events and things, and overlays them onto a map of where you are.”

You can have a play right there and then by entering your postcode or a place name. It understands most things that google maps understands. We’ve built the prototype using google maps, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t work on top of another mapping system eventually.

As we were building the prototype, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster occurred, and you might have seen the excellent visualisation at by Andy Lintner.

When we saw that and how well it was received – we knew we were on the right track! Dimensions is a platform to explore a lot more in that vein.

Wandering into the ‘Space’ package reveals a few different types of dimension – sizes, plans, routes.
BBC - Dimensions - Space

The routes, such as that taken by the Apollo 11 moonwalkers mentioned in the original concept really can be revealing when juxtaposed on your postcode, or an area you know well…

BBC - Dimensions - The Apollo 11 Moonwalks

For instance if I type in our studio’s postcode…

BBC - Dimensions - If the Apollo 11 Moonwalks happened around BERG's studio!

I can see that Buzz and Neil would have barely left the building’s carpark…

Some Dimensions let you go a step further, literally – by allowing you to plot a route around your neighbourhood, or perhaps your commute, or perhaps a nearby bit of countryside – so that you can viscerally experience the distances involved.

BBC - Dimensions - Creating a walkable route of the Apollo 11 Moonwalks

You point and click on the map to make your walk like so – a little gauge runs along the bottom so you can see how far you have left to plot…

BBC - Dimensions - Creating a walkable route of the Apollo 11 Moonwalks

…and when you’re happy with your route you can print out a map to take on your dimensional ramble.

BBC - Dimensions - Creating a walkable route of the Apollo 11 Moonwalks

The distance just about takes us from the front-door of our studio to a refreshing pint in one of our locals, The Book Club. Just the thing after a moonwalk.

And that’s Dimensions!

One of the things I love about it is things like that – where something huge and momentous is made grokkable in the familiar. I also love that that’s all it really does.

It’s a bit like a digital toy – that just does one thing, very clearly (we hope) and delights in doing so.

It’s imagined that if the prototype is successful, it will be integrated into the main BBC site for embedding into history and news storytelling online.

The prototype system that we’ve made allows designers and producers at the BBC to create as many Dimensions as they want to using standard SVG creation tools. It’s also possible that this system could be opened up for local history enthusiasts to create their own dimensions to contribute.

The BBC worked with KeltieCochrane to create the initial content that’s in this prototype, and it was fantastic to see the system we built fill up with their work. My favourite’s The Colossus of Rhodes. Brilliant.

We’ll write some more here about both possible futures and the behind-the-scenes of Dimensions later. In the mean-time, many thanks to Matt Brown, Tom Armitage, Matt Webb, Phil Gyford and Paul Mison who worked on this with me, and Max Gadney for giving us a lovely brief.

Alan Kay once said that “A change of perspective is worth +80 IQ points”– that’s the goal of BBC Dimensions. So long as it delivers tiny bursts of that along with the little grins of ah-ha it seems to generate, we’ll be very happy.

You can find the BBC Dimensions prototype at

Another Science Fiction: An Intersection of Art and Technology in the Early Space Race

Matt Jones writes...

This week, we’re proud to present a guest post from Megan Prelinger, cofounder of The Prelinger Library. Megan’s piece is the first in an occasional series of guest blogposts we're going to commission from friends, colleagues and others we admire. In it, she previews her book "Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957–62" that hits on some of our studio's obsessions - mid-20thC art, design and... rocketry...

As an historian, I dig through found evidence of past decades looking for unseen intersections between technology and design. The two were of course close mutual contextualizers during the mid-century Modern era and incredibly, the untapped historical record of this era is rich and multi-layered: Monthly and weekly periodicals recorded events as they unfolded, catching disinformation and hypotheses along with facts, and a tremendous range of imagery that was never captured in books or annuals as part of the designated record of the era.

Artwork: Number IX by Oli Sihvonen. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles & Rockets, 1 Feb., 1960

Artwork: Number IX by Oli Sihvonen. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles & Rockets, 1 Feb., 1960

The most compelling imagery is in industrial trade magazine advertising. Aviation Week and Missiles and Rockets of the 1950s and 60s, were both published out of the U.S. during the peak of the Cold War.

Aviation Week, October 1957

Aviation Week, October 1957

Aviation Week has published since the 1940s and is still a world leader in covering military and civilian aerospace technology developments. Missiles and Rockets was a short-lived competitor (1956 – 65), whose pages made up for in style what they lacked in tenure.

Missiles and Rockets, February 1958

Missiles and Rockets, February 1958

Within the realm of monthly and weekly periodicals, trade publications aimed at working professionals within industry are less examined than their internationally-known general interest counterparts such as Science and Scientific American. Together they offer a body of advertising literature that forms a time capsule of the emerging dynamic between design and technology during the late 1950s and very early 1960s, the peak of technological eruption during the Cold War in the U.S. During those years mid-century Modern design asserted itself within the trade-based advertising literature as a powerful visual language with a killer application.

Recruitment advertisements for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, illustrate a special case of the relationship between Modernism and industry. This is a set of five images appropriated from regional fine painters into service for the recruitment campaign at Los Alamos.

Artwork: Space by Charles Stewart. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 26 Nov., 1962

Artwork: Space by Charles Stewart. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 26 Nov., 1962

The dominant activity of the Laboratory was then, as now, nuclear weapons development. A place seared into public memory by its role as the site of the research and testing of the first atomic bomb, the Laboratory has, since the end of the civil nuclear rocket programs, been mostly a weapons research laboratory. However in the 1950s and 60s there was initiative and federal funding to adapt the atomic legacy to civil purposes. Toward that end Project Rover, sited at the Laboratory, was devoted to the development of a strictly civil-applicable nuclear rocket. The project yielded the NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) rocket — mothballed before it was ever tested after political support for it dried up — and the development of small nuclear batteries used in lunar exploration. In those, Laboratory’s program roster included civil space activity as a very large second area of research and development. The dominance of space-related visual motifs in these artworks indicates the widespread prevalence of the civil space program as a leading face of a technological directive that served both martial and peaceful objectives.

Between the two World Wars, a fine arts tradition was established and flourished in nearby Taos, New Mexico, founded by both American and European expatriate artists. Members of this group were thousands of miles from the other early modernist painters, yet their work was in dialogue with the dominant themes of modernism. In New Mexico the movement took shape in the emphasis on a spare, sun-dominated landscape expressed in the works of the Taos artists.

Painter Emil Bisttram started making paintings titled Space Images as early as 1954.1 In his work, the interplanetary and interstellar landscape of space that the enormous New Mexico sky brought into close juxtaposition with the high desert is recast as a suitable subject for depiction in an abstract expressionist mode. Bisttram’s Ascending, has been subtitled by the Laboratory: “scientific objectivity characterizes the examination of natural forces in the experimental laboratories at Los Alamos.”2 In the painting, Bisttram combines an abstraction of space with a strong suggestion of the mechanical engineering processes that will get us there:

Artwork: Ascending by Emil Bisttram, 1958. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 6 June, 1960

Artwork: Ascending by Emil Bisttram, 1958. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 6 June, 1960

The form that dominates the center right of the painting, and the lines that attach all the forms to one another, are suggestive of engineering diagrams. Or even internal rocket structure, or just the process of forming connection between one idea and the next. One possible extrapolation, that the abstracted systems/bodies at the top, bottom, and left center of the image represent planets and orbits, is left to the viewer’s imagination.

The geographic relationship between the LASL research station and the landscape that inspired the Taos artists led to a neighborly connection between the two that adds considerable depth to the relationship between the images and their “subject matter.” Incredibly, a catalog prepared for an exhibition of the works, titled Art and the Atom, explains that the works were not commissioned for the advertisements. Instead advertisements were created by Laboratory personnel director Robert Meier based on pre-existing artworks. In other words, the “profound dialogic relationship with environment”3 that inspired the artists was an independent parallel to the functionally dialogic relationship with the environment held by the LASL nuclear test facility. These parallel lines of development are expressed poetically in Art and the Atom:

“The artist is aware of space, mass, motion and energy. He is cognizant of our world in conjunction with outer space and is abreast of the development in the world of science. He searches intuitively rather than theoretically. The scientist is equally involved with the same observations. He explores the potentials; he is the discoverer: the man of research. Both artist and scientist are involved with the mysteries of the Universe.”
—Leone Kahl, Director, Stables Art Gallery, Taos, ca. 19634

Exhibition catalog, pub. The Stables Art Gallery of Taos. n.d., circa 1963.

Exhibition catalog, pub. The Stables Art Gallery of Taos. n.d., circa 1963.

In the foreword to Art and the Atom, Reginald Fisher, then director of the El Paso Museum of Art, writes that “the semantics of this exhibition revolve around such terms as: space, energy, motion, dynamics, thrust, propulsion, acceleration, curiosity, probe, experiment, empirical, technology, mystery, experience.” He notes that the paintings were selected from pre-existing artworks “on the basis of the capacity of the particular piece to portray symbolically the essence of the research field under consideration [for recruitment].” The remaining historical evidence of this transaction between industry and artist is mute on the question of how the artists felt having their works utilized in this manner, or whether any chose to opt out.

Below is a straightforward meditation by Bisttram on the shapes and spaces that emerge when a painter contemplates a starscape. The inky midnight blue shades here echo the tones used by Van Gogh in his Starry Night, but here space is foregrounded through the omission of a ground plane. The figure–ground shift in this image has captured what the Earth-centric regulatory approach to space neglects to account for: that in space there is no “ground,” only the whole new spatial logic of the solar system environment. Titled Moon Magic by the artist, its catalog description carries the added thought, “Mysteries of the universe provide the dynamics for projects.”

Artwork: Moon Magic by Emil Bisttram, 1958. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 25 April, 1960

Artwork: Moon Magic by Emil Bisttram, 1958. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 25 April, 1960

Taos artist Oli Sihvonen extends the visual language connecting atomics research and space themes to the regional landscape. In the top image (far above), a background field that could be sand, desert, or stylized space billows behind a round shape that suggests the sun, or of course, the atom, or perhaps is meant to suggest both at the same time. The work is titled Number IX, and in the catalog bears the subtitle “Diverse scientific interests ranging from basic research to space problems.” The organic shape of the rippled background suggests the desert, a natural environment. The image takes a step toward minimalism in its reduction of the field to its two dominant shapes, the golden rectangular ground and the spherical black figure of the “sun.”

The work below by Sihvonen is titled Blue Spot, subtitled “Experimentation in nuclear motion and energy:”

Artwork: Blue Spot by Oli Sihvonen. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 5 October 1959

Artwork: Blue Spot by Oli Sihvonen. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 5 October 1959

The blue spot disrupts the conventionally romantic stylization of planetary or solar bodies by contracting the sphere to its minimal form. Sihvonen here seems to references the early 20th century Russian constructivists, with the prolonged vertical angular shape aimed at the planetary circle. It brings to mind El Lissitzsky’s constructivist graphic composition Beat Back the Whites with the Red Wedge which pioneered the use of juxtaposed triangle and circle as a graphic strategy to represent political conflict. I find it ironic that the graphic legacy of Communist action should be re-articulated and put into service — whether with or without the artists’ sanction — in the service of American Cold War-era weapons and civil space technological programming.

The investigation that yielded the discovery of these artworks and their history is part of a larger project: In Spring 2010 Blast Books will publish my monograph Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957–62, which gathers and interprets over 175 advertising images from Aviation Week and Missiles and Rockets. It clusters the advertisements into five subjects, including those that recruit for satellites, for human space exploration, for propulsion systems engineering, and for projects that recast space as a new landscape. Lastly, Mid-Century Modern Space rounds out the book with a longer discussion of industry’s use of modern design in advertising. This essay was adapted from this chapter.

The book itself is but one product of the cultural enterprise co-developed by my spouse Rick and myself: The Prelinger Library (, a private research library that is open to the public in San Francisco. We are an experimental, image-appropriation friendly library with both analog and digital holdings, including over 30,000 titles and ephemeral artefacts in the areas of media, technology, and landscape and social history. Thanks to BERG for visiting us this past summer! All are invited.

  1. Gerald Peters Gallery, Modernist Themes in New Mexico: Works by Early Modernist Painters. Introduction by Barbara G. Bell.
  2. Art and the Atom: An Exhibition of Contemporary Art Used in Scientific Advertisements. Gallery catalog, Stables Art Gallery, Taos. Robert Meier, Assistant Personnel Director in Charge of Recruitment, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, curator. N.d., circa 1963.
  3. Art and the Atom, first verso page of Foreword.
  4. Art and the Atom, first verso page of “Catalogue” section.

Tangled histories


I saw Brian Eno and Steven Johnson in conversation on Monday night at the ICA, and Johnson talked about an approach he calls the long zoom or maybe consilience. The invention of air (the subject of his book) must take in the context of the Enlightenment; the energy and machines released by the Industrial Revolution; discussions, letters and social relations; and the shift from alcohol to coffee. All scales interconnect. None determine.

I enjoy these interwoven histories. In Pandora’s Hope, Bruno Latour tells how Pasteur and microbes bring each other to life, buttressed by laboratory experiments and arguments in letters to other scientists. Pasteur, microbes and instruments each have their own capacities to act and collaborate, and it’s only in their actions that we remember any of them; that history is made.

Yesterday morning I had an exciting meeting with a potential cybernetics researcher. I hope it works out. We found tight knots and long arcs: gnosis, McLuhan, Shannon’s information theory, mind/body, and Neuromancer; racism, eugenics, Mead, post-structuralism; prosthetics and body modification.



We’re now 20 years after the Prague Revolution of November 1989, that threshold year for modern Europe. It is a tangled history: all views of the events are partial and are often contradictory. No single factor determines. Historical trajectories lasting five decades are as important as lies told to credulous protestors, and as important as an invisible-to-us political game played between the secret police of Soviet Russian and Czechoslovakia. All we can do is tell stories.

The Prague revolution is a history best seen as constructive interference; a kind of aleph moment of trajectories and events; a cloud formation in a particular spot brought about by humidity and foliage and gaps in the clouds, a nest or complex of feedback loops; a self-reinforcing discontinuity.

Some years ago I made a timeline from journals and journalism I could find online. 1989 is right at the beginning of online personal narrative, which is one of the qualities that attracted me. In the end I wrote a story about Martin Smid, the student who didn’t die, but whose death at the hands of the police catalysed the revolution: Listopad, Prague 1989.

I don’t know why I write this. I’m interested in tangles and multi-actor histories, and how you tell stories in them. Books are for the linearisable. Hypertext is for hyperhistories. I’m curious about how simple patterns in behaviours or social relationships somehow persist, complexify and grow over decades and hundreds of thousands of people, and somehow don’t die away.

That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in cybernetics — surely it’s important, the weird individual relationships, the probes into the nature of being human, the mix of countercultural and military-industrial, the attitudes and ideas, all fermenting in the bottleneck population that contributed so much to modern culture? Surely those patterns persisted and weren’t diluted, and will throw light on the here and now? Beginnings matter.

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