The Daily Heller: How Did the Computer Compute?

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Rachel Ignotofsky, a visual storyteller, author and designer, has a mission to make dense information fun and accessible—and she has done just that. Her books include Women in Sports (2017) and Women in Art (2019), and she has also tackled conservation and climate change in The Wondrous Workings of Planet Earth (2018). She’s introduced “backyard biology” to young readers with What’s Inside a Flower? (2021), which is the first installment of her new picture book series with Random House Kids. With her latest book for Ten Speed Press, The History of the Computer (2022), she packs beautifully illustrated, designed and handwritten pages with a trove of history for all ages. The book spans over 25,000 years of history and elegantly imparts the details of humankind’s evolving relationship with technology.

After spending some quality time this past week with The History of the Computer, I couldn’t wait to ask Rachel how she became so fluent in (what for me are new) languages of science and technology.

How did you become interested in technology? Is this where your true passion lies?
I came about my interest in technology through my early obsession with making art. When I was about 7 years old—so, about 1996—I stumbled upon a Mac Color Classic at my local library and immediately started drawing with the little mouse. I remember the thrill of being able to save my color palettes. Since then, computers have just been another tool to create—just like my box of crayons. Vintage tech came into my life in my 20s, when my then-boyfriend (now husband) filled my apartment with tech junk turned treasures that he would sell on eBay. A moment clicked when he brought home a calculator from 1969. It was bulky and unwieldy, with delicate hot nixie tubes for the display. It was just a gorgeous piece of equipment that looked so alien next to my iPhone. I wanted to better understand how we got from then to now. Or take it even further, how the early computers of the past—which were built for war, locked away in ultra-secret underground labs, covered in vacuum tubes and required specialized knowledge to use—became “liberated for the masses,” and so accessible that even a 7-year-old could waddle up and use it.

In this book we answer that question and much more. We start at prehistoric time, when people created the first counting and math tools, and go all the way to today. There has never been a fully illustrated book about the history of the computer, and I am excited to say that this book is the first! And that is where my real passion is—using my skills as a graphic designer to answer big questions and make complicated subjects easy to learn about.

I’ve read a lot of illustrated go-deep-in-the-weeds books. But yours is so much more detailed. How long did it take, and how much did you study to grasp this material?
This project was three years in the making, including the research, writing and illustration. And in researching this book I knew I was going to need to see these computer antiques in person. In 2019 I visited two of the major museums on the West Coast, but when the pandemic hit, those museums were off-limits to the public. So we began building our own mini museum with a collection of a bunch of computers from the ’70s and ’80s (my two favorites being the 1977 Commodore PET and the 1984 Macintosh). Interacting with the GUI on the computers and feeling the scale and size of them was all really important to drawing the scenes in the book. I also pored over old advertisements starting in the 1800s for these machines. Getting the clothes, hair styles and settings right for each time period was key!

You appear to have a love of Victorian lettering. How does this fit with your 21st-century subject matter? Is it a soft entry point?
Yes! You totally got me. I am a total maximalist and any art or design that is overly ornate fills me with joy. I love old Victorian type lockups, Polish tea cups, illuminated manuscripts, and grew up reading tons of comics on the floor of my library. All of this has really influenced my sense of design and layout. For this book I actually started with the Steam and Machine chapter that focuses on tech history during the industrial revolution. Using that as a launching point, the composition of the hand-done typography stays the same with each chapter, but the inlays, icons and design elements change to capture the style of each time period.

I can’t get over how rapt I’ve been. I’m in my early 70s, and I’ve been using the computer for over 30 years. Am I your audience? Who is?
This book is for all ages! It is written at the eighth-grade level (just like the news!) and is currently being read by 10-year-olds who want to learn more about computers, and experts in the field who want to celebrate their passion. That is the power that illustration has—it really allows you to reach different generations. And as a graphic designer I can create a hierarchy of information that is also at different levels. I want little kids to grow with this book as they get older, and I want the adult readers to better understand where their technology comes from.

What do you hope your audience will take away? Is it pure joy, basic understanding, or both?
Yes, and yes! Our lives and interactions have increasingly become more and more filtered through our computers. With that comes both benefits and challenges—and only by learning history can we better understand our relationship with tech. Only until very recently has the power of a computer—to amplify one’s own thinking power—been in the hands of the individual on such a grand scale. And by learning about the past we can critically think about what we are using this power for. What parts of ourselves are we amplifying? And [we can] ask hard questions about how powerful organizations are using these tools.

My hope for this book is that it inspires everyone to be excited to use computers as tools of creation and positive collaboration! Many of our problems can be solved when our tools—developed and used ethically and thoughtfully—work for us.

Reprinted with permission from The History of the Computer: People, Inventions and Technology That Changed Our World. Copyright © 2022 by Rachel Ignotofsky. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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