John Harwood


On his book The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

Cover Interview of April 11, 2012

A close-up

I’d like to imagine that a reader picking up this book might be able to flip to the chapter that addresses a particular medium that interests them—e.g. graphics, industrial design, architecture, film and spectacle—and be surprised by the impact that IBM and its designers had upon that medium.  (And then go to the check-out counter, then to their favorite reading spot, and then reopen the book to page one!)  The book is full of a particular kind of uncanny history: nearly invisible things that seem familiar, natural, and inevitable are suddenly revealed to have a strange and unsettling history.

A good example of this is in the chapter on the design of computers: “Computer Architectures.”  There I show that, until Eliot Noyes and Edgar Kaufmann Jr. had spent years thinking through how a computer ought to be designed as a material object in architectural space, there was quite literally no understanding of what we today call a computer interface.

Through a process of close collaboration with IBM’s various engineers, and a series of trials and errors, Noyes and Kaufmann eventually arrived at a specifically architectural understanding of the relationship between human beings and computers.  They called it the “parlor and coal cellar” principle.  The space that the computer operator inhabited, the parlor, was to be a space designed for the comfort and safety of the human being; the messy, even poisonous, space that the CPU itself inhabited, was to be relegated to the coal cellar, an essential functional component kept out of sight and touch from the operator.  The hinge between these two spaces was the computer interface, which carefully and deliberately controlled the interaction between human being and machine.

This is what an interface is, a machine for bringing people and machines together into a productive apparatus, which is known as the “man-machine system.”  Interfaces are the hyphen.