Computer History at the cinema

TILvids offers a particular selection (“The Best Computer History Movies”) of films… which would you choose?


This list obviously excludes documentaries, of which there are many good ones. There have been a couple of more recent movies about Steve Jobs that would fit right in.

The video describes Kevin Mitnick in “Takedown” as a “phone phreaker”. Not having watched the movie I don’t know if the mistake is in it, but certainly Kevin is of a completely different generation.

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I haven’t seen Takedown either, but I have read the book, and subsequently read commentary which makes it out to be rather skewed.

As for The Imitation Game, I haven’t seen that either, and partly because “it is an excellent film. It is also wildly inaccurate.

It can be, of course, that films can be entertaining and even informative without necessarily being fully accurate…

I imagine that Enigma (Enigma (2001) - IMDb) also falls into the same category. I only read the novel, and that was many years ago.

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“The Imitation Game” does show a mathematician holding a soldering iron (twice!), so it is closer to science fiction than to a documentary. But I really enjoyed it as a movie and recommend that people see it, but warn them that it “is inspired by real events”.

The change that I find really insulting is the “frame”. The movie starts with Alan talking to the police officer who arrested him and then the rest of the movie is the story he is telling. Not a single person who participated in those projects ever told anybody (including spouses) about them until they were declassified in the 1970s. Having the fictional Turing casually spill all the secrets to some random guy is absurdly out of character.


Yes, there’s so much wrong with that film, I gather…

But, I’m relatively sure Turing did wield a soldering iron - is he the mathematician you speak of? I’ve never found a picture of it, but it’s a strong impression… maybe it’s mentioned or implied in Hodge’s biography.

… ah yes, here’s the scene from Hodges:

Both were introduced to the large ‘laboratory’ hut where the
research projects were in progress, and found Alan at work there. If
civilians from Cambridge were apt to find him unusually careless in
appearance, his divergences from respectability were very much more
noticeable at military Hanslope. With holes in his sports jacket, shiny
grey flannel trousers held up with an ancient tie, and hair sticking
out at the back, he became the cartoonist’s ‘boffin’ – an impression
accentuated by his manner of practical work, in which he would
grunt and swear as solder failed to stick, scratch his head and make
a strange squelching noise as he thought to himself, and yelp when
shocked by the current that he forgot to turn off before soldering the
joints in his ‘bird’s nest’ – so they called it – of electronic valves.


Thanks for the correction!

I was thinking more about the scene near the end of the movie where he is building a computer all by himself in his home. In real life he worked at the NPL (National Physics Laboratory) where he designed the ACE computer, which is very different than the ones we are used to. He got frustrated by the lack of progress and moved on to Manchester where he got to use their Mark I computer. His old group at NPL actually built a simplified version of his design without him, called the Pilot Ace.

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I’ve seen Hackers, Hidden Figures, The Imitation Game, and Pirates of Silicon Valley. Of these, I’d say I liked Hidden Figures the best, though Pirates of Silicon Valley is up there.

Hidden Figures best illustrated computer history by talking about human computers, and showing the desk calculators that were used. There is an IBM mainframe in it, but it doesn’t play a large role in the movie.

The only way I liked The Imitation Game was it dramatized the use of the Bombe computer, and some of what it looked like. I didn’t think it was a good portrayal of Turing. I much prefer Breaking The Code for that. It was a PBS/BBC production from the 1990s, with Derek Jacobi playing Turing. Incidentally, this was based on the original stage play where Jacobi also played Turing. It doesn’t show any computing, but the BBC version (better than the PBS edition) gets more into the math Turing used, and why he came up with his theoretical Turing Machine concept. It also gets more into his private life, and it shows there was controversy around his death (re. whether it was a suicide or accidental).

I like Pirates of Silicon Valley, even though it contains a significant amount of fiction, because it gives some backstory to the creation of Apple Computer and Microsoft. According to Steve Wozniak, its portrayal of the people at Apple was accurate, even though the dialogue was completely made up. Bill Gates hated it, mainly, it seemed, because of how it portrayed Steve Ballmer. Gates said, “He was never like that.” On that score, I agree. I looked at interviews with Ballmer, and looked at his portrayal in Pirates, and it seemed like they made a cartoon out of him, and only really used him as a narrator.

You left out “Jobs” and “Steve Jobs.” I watched “Steve Jobs,” and thought it was good. Wozniak, John Sculley, along with many other Apple employees, liked it. It contains a significant amount of fiction in terms of what happened, but the character portrayals are accurate. Sculley particularly liked it, because it got into the real conflict that arose between him and Jobs over what Apple became when Jobs left. He thought it gave the first honest portrayal of that. Even years later, Jobs said of Sculley, “What can I say? I picked the wrong guy.” Ouch!

Wozniak was critical of “Jobs,” because he said even though he offered to provide consulting on the movie, nobody from the production called him, and he thought the character portrayals were completely off.

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Hi. For a more in-depth look at the early 1980s computer scene, I’d like to suggest “Halt and Catch Fire”:

Everyone’s excellent but Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy are exceptional as sort of Jobs-Woz analogues.


“Hidden Figures” is a great movie. But if I made fun of “The Imitation Game” having Turing build a computer in his home, I have to confess how much I laughed at the IBM mainframe scene in “Figures”. The main character sees two IBM techs scratching their heads trying to get the machine to work and when they leave for lunch she goes in, glances at the open schematic, attaches the oscilloscope probe to a pin in the huge wirewrap board and looking at the waveform fixes the problem.

Having designed and built many wirewrap projects I can say that looking at a board and instantly finding the right pin is pure fantasy. Even if it is nicely labelled you always end up having to count pins to get to the right one. And that is for projects where I did everything myself. If it is someone else’s board then it will take a lot longer to find stuff.

But details like this don’t hurt the story at all. It is about leaving the right impression in the audience and not preparing them to do something similar themselves.

I watched Halt and Catch Fire for a bit. I also liked the Joe MacMillan and Gordon Clark characters, giving some idea about how the PC BIOS was reverse-engineered. I also liked the intensity Lee Pace (MacMillan) brought to being a tech executive in that era. Though, I had trouble buying his passion for the “world-changing” nature of the product, given that it was a reverse-engineered PC. The way they portrayed the legal controversy around the product, and the corporate politics around that seemed realistic.

I lost interest after that. My memory is this was because the show introduced a female engineer to work on developing the product, but the way she was portrayed seemed totally out of step with the setting of the story. It felt difficult to place just “what era she was from.” She was portrayed as a rebellious “punk chick.” The female engineers I heard about from that time were not like this at all. They didn’t dress like her, nor act like her, even when they got pissed off about something. It felt like the story writers were blatantly pandering to modern pop culture attitudes about “chicks in technology,” and since she was a prominent character, this blew up for me the idea that it was “set in the '80s.”

Yes, the quiet intensity of Lee Pace was strangely captivating. I think the passion surrounding the early PC clones wasn’t necessary based upon developing new / ground breaking technology but was more about the notion that with a little reverse engineering and moxie, a startup company could take on IBM. I remember a bit of that and I think that sense of excitement was real.

The series lost a bit of steam in the middle but the ending (particularly a scene with Gordon at the very end) was moving. I see your point about the forced artificial diversity, but I was able to buy into it by thinking of people like Roberta Williams in the early gaming scene. I find portrayals of coders as edgy emo / punk cartoon cutout characters annoying regardless of gender. How do they find time to dote on appearances while keeping up to date with the tech? - I must be doing something wrong.

Anyhow, I do see your point and the series was perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be but there were some memorable scenes. I was glad to see this era of history at least partially captured in historical fiction, despite the inaccuracies.

To add to what I said, the incongruity for me re. the female engineer was not that she dressed punk, since there were women around, just in society, who dressed that way (though, my memory was thinking, “I don’t remember punk women looking like her.” I forget what was different, but I think it had something to do with her hairstyle). My guess is this just goes with what I’ve heard producers of historical dramas do. They take elements of history, and use it for something they want in the story. They don’t care if it’s historically in context. Historical consultants do (I’ve heard their complaints :slightly_smiling_face: ). Producers just care what it evokes in the audience.

The way the female engineer was portrayed was so distracting. As I was writing my comment, I was trying to think about what the producers were thinking by introducing this character, and then it hit me, “Oh, they wanted to appeal to the modern image of the rebellious female techie, who’s bucking all convention.” I’m sure there was that in the '80s, but what I’ve read of women in tech then was they just handled it differently. They did what the men did. They dressed professionally. In terms of personality, they were also professional. From what I’ve heard from women who were trying to rise through the corporate ranks then, they wanted to fit in. If they’d dressed and acted like the female engineer I described, they would’ve been tossed out on their ear. I mean, that’s really what did it for me, just the unrealistic portrayal, like, “Are you kidding??” It didn’t pass the plausibility test.

Yes, I think that when you want to be accepted for your capabilities and professionalism, the last thing that you would want is to put yourself in a position to be singled out because of appearance / dress code. So, Cameron’s not realistic. However, note that the other major female characters in the series (i.e. Donna Clark / Gordon’s wife and Diane, the VC), were depicted exactly as you describe.

The dress code thing wasn’t universal in the eighties though - presumably it was in the US, and maybe in the UK (I do remember a lot of white shirts and suits on those UK guys), but elsewhere not so much. Where I worked in the eighties the techs and engineers wore whatever they wanted (MC guys leather, beach guys shorts, you could see anything).