Columbia University Computing History   

Films Depicting Early Computing Equipment in Action

I haven't made any kind of systematic search or survey, but happened to see the following films that contain sequences of authentic 1940s, 50s, or 60s (or earlier) punched-card or other computing machinery in action.

The film I would most like to find — if it exists — would show the navigator of an American bomber getting a sextant fix on some celestial object and then looking it up in one of the Air Almanacs produced by Wallace Eckert at the US Naval Observatory throughout the War. I've seen dozens of shots of B-17 navigators but have yet to see a single almanac (see Wikipedia on celestial navigation).

Title Year Topic/­Genre Remarks
Air Force 1943 World War II Adventures of a B-17 crew in the Pacific in the early days of the war. It begins with a sequence involving an IBM Radiotype machine receiving a message, an IBM 032 card punch transcribing it, and in IBM 405 accounting machine printing it. See screen shots HERE.
Wing and a Prayer 1944 World War II Dana Andrews; carrier pilots in the Pacific. Message reception involving the same equipment as in Air Force. Screen shots HERE.
Allotment Wives 1945 Post-WWII About a racket that defrauds the Department of War's Office of Dependency Benefits by having women marry multiple GIs. At the beginning of the movie we see IBM 405 typebars in action at the ODB.
Walk East On Beacon 1952 Early Cold War A McCarthy-era movie about communist spies, has about a minute of footage of the IBM SSEC designed at Columbia's Watson Lab. Read more about this film HERE.
Computer Networks - The Heralds Of Resource Sharing 1972 ARPANET A documentary about the early ARPANET that begins with a montage of equipment, cards, tape, Teletypes, backplanes, video terminals, IMPs, etc, and then has interviews with ARPANET creators. Also (as of June 2016) available on Youtube.
Infinity 1996 World War II Matthew Broderick as Richard Feynman programming and operating an IBM 403 at Los Alamos, and an IBM sorter, an IBM 026 card punch, and some other machines in the background. All of these are early postwar models, but "close enough" to those that were actually used during the war (e.g. 403 standing in for 405; 026 key punch for 032). Use this link for as long as it lasts to see the machine room sequence, which lasts one and half minutes from 1:02:27 to 1:03:53.
Enigma 2001 World War II A fictionalized story of the World War II code breakers at Bletchley Park.
Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII 2010 World War II Centered around interviews with some of the original ENIAC programmers. There is film (not just stills) of Vannever Bush's Differential Analyzer and ENIAC itself in action, as well as the woman computers seated at their desktop mechanical calculators, supplemented by stock footage of 1930s-40s IBM equipment, war production, and the war itself, not well-checked (for example, B-29s are used to illustrate the B-17 bombing missions over Germany).
The Americans 2013-​2018 Cold War A cable network FX series about undercover KGB agents in the USA during the Reagan years. Season 2 Episode 7 Includes scenes in a machine room with a big blue DECsystem-10 (PDP-10) and an ARPANET IMP. I don't know if the IMP is real, but the PDP-10 is. Available on Amazon Instant Video
Hidden Figures 2017 NASA 1960s Installation and use of an IBM 7090 mainframe at NASA Langley Research in Hampton, VA.

Numerous films made in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s include stock footage of card sorters and/or spinning reel-to-reel magnetic tapes. The 1957 Tracy-and-Hepburn movie Desk Set features an impressive but fictional 1950s "electronic brain".

The Andromeda Strain (1971) has several closeups of Teletypes in action and some early computer graphics, plus a great deal of science-fiction / doomsday computing.

The IBM historical archive has a newsreel of NORC, a supercomputer built at Columbia University, completed in 1954.

The IEEE has a 1946 film clip showing how Teletypes are used in telegram transmission.

The Computer History Museum has a long film on early computers on Youtube, Computer Pioneers and Pioneer Computers: Dawn of Electronic Computing, 1935-1945.

Allan Olley points out another site that lists movies with computers in them:, mainly featuring Apples, Ataris, Commodores, PCs, etc, but some gems among them:

Finally, there's the Computer History Archive Project, that has links to a number of films about early computers: ENIAC, RCA, UNIVAC, NCR, IBM... (Click here to go straight to the Youtube channel).

For help and suggestions regarding some of these films, Allan Olley and Henry "Strontium Black Cat".

Columbia University Computing History Frank da Cruz / This page created: January 2001 Last update: 27 March 2021