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I just watched the movie The Magnetic Monster, which is a 1953 science-fiction thriller. The main premise is hokum, but there's an amount of reasonable-seeming background "science" around.

The heroes, from the Office of Scientific Investigation (apparently not the OSI that would go on to design a network protocol suite thirty-some years later :-)) do some calculating with an electronic brain known as "the MANIAC". There are various shots of various pieces of equipment, including keypunches, 5-hole paper tape readers, various switch panels, and so on. And a pre-computer card sorter which is supposedly part of the MANIAC, but never mind that.

There was a 1952 computer called MANIAC at Los Alamos, of design similar to the IAS machine. And there's some thematic tie-in to the movie, which has a "radiation" problem as well as the magnetism of the title.

So here's my question: are any of those shots actually the Los Alamos MANIAC?

Key scenes have the boffins at the operating console of the MANIAC, with the usual "cheaper in quantity" number of lights and switches. Are there any similar pictures of the real MANIAC.

I believe one character says the MANIAC uses a "new form of cathode ray tube" for storage, which seems about right for the time.

(The movie is entertaining enough, if you like the genre; it's free viewing with Amazon Prime in the USA)

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  • IMDB trivia section says it is an "old card sorting machine". Dec 3 '21 at 2:30
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    If you can play it, why not grab some pictures of the machine and add them here?
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 3 '21 at 2:35
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    According to Wikipedia MANIAC was a single 6-foot-high, 8-foot-long unit weighing 1,000 pounds. (450 kg) I'll edit and add some photos. Dec 3 '21 at 2:41
  • @NateEldredge - there was a card sorter as part of the computer, which was sorting cards at some key "calculating" moment in the plot, but it wasn't the only device around. There was a lights-and-switches console that looked more like computers of the 50s and 60s had, but I don't know if it was a prop or not. Dec 3 '21 at 2:50
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    @Raffzahn - I watched in on the TV through a Roku, so no opportunity for screen grabs. But I can run through it on a computer, later. Dec 3 '21 at 2:52
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Having taken a look at the film it does not appear that the "MANIAC" depicted is the same as the real MANIAC I. The "MANIAC" computer appears at about 18 minutes into the film.

What is actually shown in the film are two IBM punched card processing machines (models 101 and 402) along with the Standards Western Automatic Computer1 at the NBS in Los Angeles. Both the SWAC and the real MANIAC I used Williams tubes for storage.

1 From 1950 to 1951 the SWAC was the fastest computer in the world.

Computer as depicted in the film
IBM 101 Statistical Machine (p. 21) IBM 101 IBM 402 Accounting Machine (p. 23) Card reader
IBM 402 Accounting Machine (p. 23) IBM 402 Accounting Machine (p. 23)
Card reader/Terminal Card reader/Terminal (alternate view)
Power Supply2
Power supply
SWAC Console with Friden Flexowriter3 SWAC Console
Console Console(alternate view)

2 Appears to be the SWAC power supply, see section B 4 (p. 179)

3 Possibly a modified Flexowriter Model FTM. See the Technical Manual, p. 312.

Source: All film images are from The Magnetic Monster via Amazon. Used under Fair Use.


Photos of the real MANIAC I:

Full computer Under construction
MANIAC I MANIAC I under construction

Source: Computing & Computers Weapons Simulation Leads to the Computer Era, LA-UR-83-5073

The Los Alamos MANIAC I during construction ([right] photograph) and in 1952 after its completion. The banks of vacuum tubes in the middle four panels make up the arithmetic processor; the side panels and the back contain the controls; the row of switches on the far left is the user's console; the boxes on top, each containing a 2-inch electrostatic cathode-ray storage tube, constitute the memory. Neon lights attached to each tube allowed the binary digits contained in the registers to be seen directly, and, as a result, the contents of a register could be changed by shorting one side of a vacuum-tube flip/top with clip leads. — Ibid

Higher-resolution photos:
Color photo of MANIAC I in use High-res front view

Sources: LANL via Flickr, LANL via Twitter

All MANIAC I images believed to be Public Domain.


The SWAC: SWAC at NBS in Los Angeles

Source: NBS/NIST via Wikipedia (Public Domain)

The computer is at the back wall with the Williams tubes in the center cabinet flanked by the logic boards in the cabinets to either side. The console is in the foreground along with the input (left) and output (right) Flexowriters. The power supply is MIA.


FWIW, the spectrometer shown in the scene prior to the "MANIAC" does appear authentic. I'd presume the footage of it was also shot at the NBS (now NIST) in Los Angeles.

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    Excellent answer. It was the SWAC that I had thought might be the real MANIAC (I was not fooled by the card equipment). Dec 3 '21 at 12:45

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