SIGCIS 2011 Workshop: Paper Panel 1: Creating Culture through Materials and Methods

Name: Joseph November

Institutional Affiliation: University of South Carolina

Email Address:

Paper Type: Full Paper

Paper Title: Macromodules, Miniaturization, and the CPU’s Brief Removal from the Black Box

Paper Abstract:

Today, as in the early days of electronic digital computing, the central processing unit (CPU) is one of the few components in a computer that almost no users modify in any significant way. Beyond the occasional warranty-voiding attempt to boost a processor’s speed by manipulating its software controls, the device itself is generally left alone even by computing enthusiasts. Indeed, since the 1950s few CPU designers seriously considered developing means for users to configure in any way what is arguably the central component of any computer. However, there was in the late 1960s and early 1970s a sustained—but seldom-discussed—attempt to remove the CPU from the black box.

Sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Department of Defense), the Computer Systems Laboratory (CSL) at Washington University (St. Louis, USA) undertook a decade-long effort to develop “macromodules,” essentially building blocks which “electronically-naïve” biology lab workers could assemble from kits in order to construct large and complex computers. As part of putting together their own computers, these users would design and build their own central processors, an activity then—and still now—widely regarded as unthinkable for non-specialists, whether they buy computers pre-assembled or construct them from kits. By examining the methods and motivations of the CSL’s macromodules project, this paper seeks to bring to light: 1) the power dynamic in relations between computer developers, their sponsors, and users; 2) how CSL designers sought to alter this dynamic by putting control over the configuration of the CPU in the hands of the users; 3) how miniaturization, starting in the mid 1970s, restored the black box containing the CPU and thereby restored an arrangement between computer developers and users that has persisted ever since.

Beyond influencing CPU design, the macromodules project shaped many efforts in the 1970s by biomedical laboratories to build improvisational systems that would be best suited to their work. These systems were crucial in a number of advances in physiology and molecular biology. Furthermore, macromodules propelled many biomedical research personnel into the 1970s “homebrew” culture of assembling personal computers from kits. While most of the priorities of the CSL macromodules effort remain unrealized, the heavy presence of biologists and research physicians in early personal computing circles ensured that many of the project’s ideals were conveyed to the pioneers of personal computing.