In the late 1950s an anonymous (male) IBM programmer working at SAGE, a joint program with the MIT and the Air Force to help detect Soviet missiles with 21 different facilities spread around the U.S. — each one containing two multi-story $238-million AN/FSQ-7 computers — commandeered one of the units to create what in all likelihood is the first piece of digital art, the Atlantic reports, a computerized rendering of a painting of a pin-up girl from Esquire.
The recently uncovered photographic evidence of the saucy program — produced using a stack of some 97 punchcards — was snapped by then-21 Airman First Class Lawrence Tipton during a 1959 visit to the SAGE complex in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where the anonymous proto-internet artist had created his risqué work. “I remember at the time that everybody knew it was done by an IBM programmer,” he told the Atlantic.
This seems like a weirdly appropriate — although, obviously, also highly inappropriate — subject for the first computer artwork ever, given the still-skewed gender dynamics of the military, computer programming, and, let’s face, digital art worlds. Things were so much simpler in the 1950s, Tipton recalls. “It was an all male enterprise at that time,” he told the Atlantic. “There were a few women in the Air Force upstairs in the control center, but at that time of life, you know, there wasn’t as much controversy.”
— Benjamin Sutton
(Photo by Lawrence Tipton, painting by George Petty. Via The Atlantic.)