Q&A With the Author of ‘Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age’

In her book, Megan Prelinger explores the relationship between engineering, art, and design

3 May 2018

From the 1930s to the 1960s, advertisements for electronic devices appeared in the form of intricate, full-color technical illustrations. At the time, consumers were less interested in the end product and more fascinated by the inner workings of new technologies—down to the number of vacuum tubes and transistors. It was the artist’s job to bring the components to life on the pages of books and magazines.

Megan Prelinger explores the relationship between engineering, art, and design in her book Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age [W.W. Norton & Co, 2015]. In December she received the IEEE William and Joyce Middleton Electrical Engineering History Award for the book. The award, given by the IEEE History Center, recognizes the author of a book about the history of an IEEE-related technology “that both exemplifies exceptional scholarship and reaches beyond academic communities toward a broad public audience.”

Prelinger, a cultural historian, founded the Prelinger Library in San Francisco in 2004 with her husband, Rick. The private research library has more than 50,000 19th- and 20th-century historical periodicals, maps, and books.

The Institute asked Prelinger what inspired her to write the book.

How did you become interested in the cultural history of technology?

A lifelong passion for science fiction, as well as watching as a small child the Apollo lunar landings on TV.

I earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Reed College, in Portland, Ore.—which involved rigorous training in cultural observation and interpretation. I was also interested in American history.

In 2004, while building the Prelinger Library’s collection, I had the opportunity to spend time with legacy engineering literature from the postwar era, such as Proceedings of the IRE [the Institute of Radio Engineers, one of IEEE’s predecessor societies] and Aviation Week. This got me to wonder whether the articles might be excluding overlooked but interesting cultural narratives.

What inspired the idea behind the book?

I was initially focused on applications of technology in aerospace. In short, I was a rocket buff! I started collecting and assembling materials including magazine advertisements and articles—which revealed the creative tension between artists and engineers in the early years of developing technologies for space. The outcome was my first book, Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957–1962 [Blast Books, 2010].

During my years of researching and writing that book, I developed a deeper appreciation for the connections between launch hardware and the electronic systems that supported them. I set aside the material on the history of electronics and nurtured its growth while finishing my first book. For my second book, I gave the materials on electronics my undivided attention.

Your book focuses on innovations between the 1930s and the 1960s. Why did you concentrate on that period?

Those years were very fruitful. In the 1930s there was a boom in radio and telecommunications technologies. At the same time, the prewar immigration of European expatriate modernists from places like the Bauhaus School, in Weimar, Germany, had a huge impact on graphic arts in the United States. Many of those modernists turned to commercial work for technology companies. In just a few years they reshaped the world of American advertising art.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was popular to illustrate the components inside the machines—they represented new ways of thinking about what a device could do.

The demands of advertisers changed in the 1960s. They became more focused on showcasing the end products—the computers, radios, and televisions—and not the components. At the same time, photography became the ascendant medium. Through the efforts of industrial designers, the systems were becoming aesthetic objects themselves, and photography was better suited to the task of capturing what they looked like.

Did IEEE’s resources help your research?

They certainly did. I was inspired to write Inside the Machine in part through my readings of Proceedings of the IRE—especially the wonderful artwork featured on its covers as well as the clear and accessible language of its technical articles. I also greatly value the process that IEEE undertook in the creation of IEEE Spectrum magazine to address the social impact of technology.

The online resources in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library were essential for the later stages of my research. I knew then where I needed to drill down in the technical literature to understand what happened when, and to really comprehend the nuts and bolts of different systems.

What did receiving the IEEE Middleton Award mean to you?

Because the book had been out for two years, I had assumed it had aged out of consideration for that kind of recognition. I was surprised and utterly delighted when I was notified! It’s a huge honor to be recognized for my research, and an even greater honor for that recognition to come from the IEEE History Center. The people who served as jurors for the prize have my profound thanks, and I am also grateful to the Middletons for establishing the award.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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