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E-mails collected by Robert Garner
"Hidden Figures", the movie,
Background Sights and Sounds
Our involvement in the Hidden Figures movie
- Lyle Bickley, CHM PDP-1 Demo Lab volunteer & expert in classic computing systems, surreptitiously recorded sounds in our 1401 Demo Lab that were used in the movie as IBM 7090 computer sounds.
- Paul Pierce, a large-scale classic computing collector in Portland, OR, loaned some of his 7090 artifacts/equipment and consulted to the director, model makers, and actors, including its star Octavia Spencer.
Table of Contents (times are 24 hour clock, Pacific Time)
- Feb 6, 2017 at 14:57 - Garner to Jamie, Paul -- Lyle Bickley was a technical advisor, Paul Pierce provided props and consultation
- Feb 6, 2017 at 15:39 - Bickley to Garner -- assistance from Lyle, Paul, CHM, IBM
- Feb 6, 2017 at 23:24 - Pierce to Garner, Martin
- Feb 10, 2017 at 16:08 - Bickley to Garner - assistance from Lyle, Paul, CHM, IBM
- April 18, 2017 at 09:06 - Spicer to ...
- April 18, 2017 at 22:59 - Garner to Spicer, Pierce, ... - Tektronix scope & ALDs
- April 20, 2017 at 09:57 - Pierce to Garner, ... - manual stand, binders, Dorothy ...
Feb 6, 2017 at 14:57 - Garner to Jamie, Paul - Lyle Bickley was a technical advisor, Paul Pierce provided props and consultation
On Mon, 6 Feb 2017 14:57:00 -0800
"Robert B Garner"
Jamie (IBM Archivist), Paul, et al,
Last week Lyle Bickley, cc'd, a co-volunteer at the Computer History Museum, astonished the 1401 restoration team with the disclosure that he had been a technical advisor to the currently playing "Hidden Figures" movie and some operational sounds from the movie were from the 1401 demo lab! Also that Paul Pierce had graciously lent some of his artifacts for the movie.
Lyle was an IBM CE for the 7090/7094 during the early 1960s (more recently on the PDP-1 restoration team at the CHM :-).
He's not sure how the Hidden Figures production staff found him, but it sounded like he enjoyed the consulting.
Lyle recorded, with the permission of the CHM, but unbeknownst to the 1401ers :-), the 1402 card reader and the 729 tape drives in the 1401 Demo Lab as background sounds for the movie's card reader and reproduction tape drives.
Paul Pierce, cc'd, lent the movie production staff an authentic 7090 console and a 701-system 711 card reader. (I noticed rust on the card reader hopper. :-) Not sure how blinking bulbs were added to the 7090 console.
All who have seen the movie, like it(!) -- illustrating how people can persevere to accomplish great things, sometimes in spite of society. Its show casing of retro, early 1960s IBM technologies was an entertaining bonus.
My (minor) technology authenticity comments:
As I understand, IBM designed equipment frames to fit through standard, 29"-wide doors,
so I'm weary of the authenticity of the "strike the door frame with a sledge hammer" scene.
Paul ---> Were/are some 7090 frames actually too wide to fit through a standard door?
The "move the scope probe, then the display trace wiggles" scene felt contrived,
but hey, they actually showed a period oscilloscope in a movie!
The 7090 and 729s mockups looked flat/cardboard-like, but nevertheless, the dimensions/sizes seemed accurate.
I didn't see blinking lights on the 729s (although several tapes were rotating).
They could have used standard 5081 punched cards (not some arbitrary business formatted card).
The movie's overall IBM needling/teasing seemed apropos. ;-)
All-in-all, a great movie.
p.s. The movie trailer credits IBM, but it would have been even
better if they had also credited the CHM, Lyle, and Paul. ;-)
Feb 6, 2017 at 15:39 - Bickley to Garner -- assistance from Lyle, Paul, CHM, IBM
From: Lyle Bickley
Subject: Re: Hidden Figures movie -- assistance from Lyle, Paul, CHM, IBM
Date: February 6, 2017 at 3:39:11 PM PST
To: Robert B Garner
Sorry for the top posting - but I only have a few comments to make:
1) 20th Century Fox contacted me after getting my name from an IBM archivist.
2) The CHM told me that if 20th Century Fox was going to take videos of the 1401 that the CHM had a protocol in place to handle that. I assume part of that would have been having the CHM in the Credits. I encouraged the Executive Producer and the Art Director to do that - but they decided that they only needed the sounds of tape drives running, card readers reading cards, machine room noise, etc. I got all those sounds from 1401 Team Members running those devices while I recorded the sounds with my Samsung Galaxy S7 (!!!).
3) 20th Century Fox was great to work with - they sent me a long list of questions regarding the 7090, how one debugged the machine (what tools did one use), what was the it like in the space program (I had been a CE at Lockheed, Sunnyvale when the USAF was launching military satellites from Vandenburg AFB - and Lockheed was doing the tracking and data gathering). I also often covered systems at NASA Ames.
4) I typically worked with Fox on conference calls - with the Executive Producer, Assistants, Art Director, etc. on the call. They literally pelted me with questions beyond the ones they sent me by email. (BTW: My primary contact was Chloe Lipp who was the Art Department Coordinator).
5) When they told me they had contacted Paul Pierce to get an authentic 7090 console, card reader, etc. I immediately called Paul and warned him the if he lent them artifacts, they would do very nasty things to them (like drill out the console lights and replace them with blinking lights). Paul said they had been upfront with him about that - so he had decided to lend them spares that he had available knowing they would "modify" them. He also negotiated with them to get everything back so he could say he had the "set" from the movie ;)
6) I talked with Chloe about credits for myself and the CHM - but instead they credited IBM. My guess is because IBM was key in helping them find consultants (such as myself and Paul), artifacts, documentation, etc.
February 6, 2017 at 23:24 - Pierce to Garner, Martin
From: Paul Pierce
Subject: "Re: Hidden Figures movie -- assistance from Lyle, Paul, CHM, IBM"
Date: February 6, 2017 at 11:24:34 PM PST
To: Robert B Garner
, Jamie Martin
I not only provided a few props but also helped with the script and then they brought me out as a consultant for the filming of the computer scenes in an abandoned Army base in Atlanta. It was my first movie experience on set and great fun!
In the movie, the 7090 console is my modified spare 7094 console, which is now clean and has a front table and a proper IBM 7090 sign as well as panels for its missing covers. All a slightly wrong shade of gray. They didn't do blinkenlights but did find that if they strung Christmas lights inside and disconnected the wires from the original lamps, which were left in place, the light shines out feebly all the way through the original lamps.
The 711 card reader is from my other IBM 709 and had been cannibalized inside. Special Effects installed a motor and got it running, there is a story there.
The body of the 716 printer was built in the prop shop but the top is the IBM 920 carriage from one of my 402's. I got it all rigged up to feed paper but there was a glitch that's part of the Special Effects story.
I also supplied the keypunch, two tape drives that were not on set, tape racks and tape that mostly didn't make it into the movie and authentic manuals that did.
And the Tektronix 545B oscilloscope with its probe.
(I apparently don't have a 545A which would have been most authentic, but the B looks exactly the same except for being in color.)
The people were great to work with (Chloe Lipp is my new BFF) but the top people were all very intense. They all know what they are doing and get it done with great speed and finesse. I couldn't even begin to keep up and some of the technical issues were definitely my fault. I now understand how it happens that even movies that aim for technical precision end up with glaring faults.
To answer some of the questions, though not in order -
One of my comments on the script was that IBM knew better than any of the other manufacturers how to build equipment to be installed in offices. All of the 7090 can be moved through the doorway, but the script used the old saw about computers too big to get in the building (certainly true and legendary for, e.g. Cray machines) as a way to introduce the idea that this computer was more than NASA could handle. I racked my brain for another way to do that but Ted the director (rightly, I think) didn't want to hear it and insisted on making that scene work as written. Its echoed later in the movie when Harrison bangs down the colored restroom sign. (The extras being workmen back in the scene where they knock the doorway wider were actually guys from the prop shop, Ted wanted someone who looked like they knew what they were doing with a sledge in their hands.)
The prop shop built all of the boxy parts of the computer. The tape drives were copied too exactly from the two I sent - neither of my beat up old 729's had their covers over the tape heads, and I arrived to find a whole bunch of shiny new (wooden) tape drives with their heads showing. The folks in the prop shop were initially dismayed that they should cover up that fancy work with much easier-to-make black covers, but they did it. You probably can't see it in the movie, but they even had steel banding tape, correctly threaded, standing in for mag tape. The tape drives were so good that from a short distance the only difference you could see was that my two were all beat up and the wrong color. Special Effects put motors in six of them along the right side of the set but no blinking lights.
To make the computer seem more ominous the mainframe sections were made taller than real life. The styling ended up as a mishmash of the authentic early 7090 and Stretch design and the later design that was all they could get plenty of pictures of.
Someone asked me on set if it brought back memories to stand in the recreated computer room, and I had to say it really did. I worked on two different old surplused IBM 7094 systems in university, one of which was installed in a proper machine room just like that.
I supplied the cards for the card reader out of a few feet of random FORTRAN application program I got along with the CHM's 7094. I thought those were FORTRAN cards, I didn't realize they were a commercial style.
For the computer repair scene, Ted had me go over a logical sequence for fixing an appropriate problem in the computer, which I tried making as short as possible but still involved going back and forth between the console and the oscilloscope and then replacing a circuit card. It was of course far too long and he came up with something much shorter (and no fussing with circuit cards) but with still a little flavor of maybe fixing something. But after filming and editing all that was left was moving the scope probe.
I actually got to work with Octavia Spencer on those scenes. What a consummate professional. For instance, of all the several people who put cards in the card reader while rehearsing or shooting, she alone did 9-edge face down correctly every single take. But she was worried about the probe scene because she couldn't see the pins. The prop shop did a fantastic job making the backplane, considering their time frame and what they had on hand to do it, but the pins were just shiny nails. Ted had me help her figure out how to hold the probe and snag the pins but ultimately she already knew what to do, and as far as I could tell she nailed it :-) on every single take despite her concerns, even before the practice session.
The large manual everyone holds during the various computer room scenes is an actual 7090 era system diagrams manual for the 7607 data channel, the appropriate manual to use in debugging a card reader problem. Except for the closeup in one scene, where we took a page from a newer manual because the old manual was so shabby.
Some of what you saw as IBM teasing was actually a subtle compromise. The original script concept was that the new computer was too much for the NASA engineers, and so they couldn't get it to work and Dorothy Vaughn had to come save the day so then she and her girls could become programmers. Ted was fixing the script as he went, that's why he has a screenwriting credit. I pointed out that it was IBM CE's who would be setting up the computer, but he knew that didn't fit with the concept of the movie and certainly didn't want to impugn IBM, who after all designed and built this marvelous new machine. So in the end nobody actually says who the IBM tech characters work for, and the audience is supposed to assume they are NASA and work for Harrison. Anyone who knows better can assume what they like, and that works too.
I think it all turned out really well. Ted knows how to milk a scene when it needs it, just check out the marriage proposal scene, which didn't stand out much for me in the original script.
Feb 10, 2017 at 16:08 - Bickley to Garner - assistance from Lyle, Paul, CHM, IBM
From: Lyle Bickley
Subject: Re: Hidden Figures movie -- assistance from Lyle, Paul, CHM, IBM
Date: February 10, 2017 at 4:08:17 PM PST
To: Robert B Garner
Cc: Jamie Martin, Dawn Stanford, L J Strumpf, =, Dag Spicer, Kirsten Tashev, Ed Thelen,
On Mon, 6 Feb 2017 18:46:03 -0800
"Robert B Garner"
believe it or not, you were the one to connect me with Lyle! :-)
That's pretty funny ;)
I had a vague memory of that (as I mentioned to Lyle last week :-),
but I wanted to be sure. ;-)
I don't recall what your pretense was for asking. ;-))
We spent many hours looking over the script, providing visual assets (photos, etc), technical manuals and specifications, and so on. They were wonderful to work with.
I really enjoyed the film, but for all the technical input 20th Century Fox got, they're were a huge number of technical issues with the film.
They had asked me a lot of questions about how NASA used and debugged a 7090, and they clearly missed/ignored a lot ;)
Of course, the 7090 was not the primary storyline - so the fact that technical stuff got "muddled" is not surprising.
The card reader and printer on the three 7090's at Lockheed, Sunnyvale were NEVER used by Lockheed personnel. All input/output on the 7090's was via tape. IBM 1401's were used to read cards and put them on tape - and output tapes from the 7090's were sent to the 1401's for printing on the 1403 printers. Same with NASA Ames.
The only people who used the card reader and printer on a 7090 were CEs running diagnostic programs. No FORTRAN programs would ever be entered via a 7090 card reader with the results printed on the 7090 printer! That would have been considered a huge waste of computer power!
One 7090 at Lockheed was used for tracking and data capture of missiles with their military satellite payload launched from Vandenberg AFB. That system included an IBM 1301 disk storage unit as well as the ever-present 729 tape drives. It also had Stromberg-Carlson Displays attached (similar in appearance to those on SAGE). Again, the card reader and printer were only used by CEs for diagnostics.
As someone else mentioned, when a site was considering acquiring a 7090 computer, IBM would work with the client months in advance to prepare a formal site plan. It covered everything - including power requirements, layout, cooling, move logistics, etc. I helped install the first 7090 at NASA Ames - and we followed the site plan precisely.
There is no way that an IBM 7090 would arrive at a customer location where IBM CEs would "discover" to their dismay that it would not fit through the door.
Finally, programmers were not allowed near any of the 7090's. The only time a programmer would be brought into contact with a system was by escort - and then only if something was taking place that was urgent, critical and unexplainable.
When Vandenberg would do a launch - the only people allowed in near the tracking 7090 were the Flight Director, his assistant(s), operators (system and display consoles), guards and possibly an IBM CE.
I was present many times for launches - and can't remember ever seeing a programmer being present.
I could go on, but we all know that the storyline takes precedence over facts in movies ;)
Bickley Consulting West Inc.
"Black holes are where God is dividing by zero"
April 18, 2017 at 09:06 - Spicer to ...
From: Dag Spicer
Subject: Hidden Figures
Date: April 18, 2017 at 9:06:43 AM PDT
To: email@example.com, Al Kossow, Marc Weber, Chris Garcia, Hansen Hsu, "David C. Brock", Len Shustek
The “IBM 7090” from “Hidden Figures” I like that they replicated the ALD (manuals) racks and Tek scope! Nicely done!
April 18, 2017 at 22:59 - Garner to Spicer, Pierce, ... - Tektronix scope & ALDs
From: Robert Garner
To: 1401 Restoration Team, Al Kossow, Marc Weber, Chris Garcia, Hansen Hsu, "David C. Brock", Len Shustek
Cc: Robert Garner, Lyle Bickley, Paul Pierce, Al Kossow, Jamie Martin/Somers/IBM@IBMUS, Susan Sherwood, 1401 Demonstrations, Ron Mak, 1401 Software Team, smd, RAMAC_team, PDP-1_team, Katharina McAllister, Jennifer Alexander, John Van Gardner, Fred Brooks
Date: 04/18/2017 10:59 PM
Subject: Re: Hidden Figures
Thanks for sharing the whole-machine-room photo from the Hidden Figures movie.
As Paul noted (below), he supplied a real Tektronix 545B oscilloscope with probe.
And that’s his actual (modified) 7094 console and a 711 card reader (from his “other” 709).
See Paul's anecdote below about the prop shop’s trial-and-error 729 mockup.
Paul —> Were the ALDs and cart the real thing?
For those who missed them, below are the emails from Paul Pierce and Lyle Bickley on how they consulted and contributed to the movie.
Lyle recorded ambient card reader, tape drive, and machine room sounds from our 1401 Demo Lab that were used in the (great) movie! ;-)
April 20, 2017 at 09:57 - Pierce to Garner, ... - manual stand, binders, Dorothy ...
From: "Paul Pierce"
To: "Robert Garner", "IBM 1401 Restoration Team List", "Al Kossow", "Marc Weber", "Chris Garcia", "Hansen Hsu", David Brock, "Len Shustek"
Cc: "Lyle Bickley", "Al Kossow", Jamie Martin, "Susan Sherwood", "1401 Demonstrations", "Ronald Mak", "1401", "S. M. Druck", "RAMAC_team", "PDP-1_team", "Katharina McAllister", "Jennifer Alexander", "John Van Gardner", Fred Brooks
Date: 04/20/2017 09:57 AM
Subject: "Re: Hidden Figures"
Yes, thats my manual stand but I only supplied 3 binders none of which are in the rack. They found a bunch of 370 ALD's and such to put in the stand.
The binders and some of the other manuals I sent are sitting on the console. The three binders I sent are the System Diagrams for your 7090-era 7607 Data Channel, which I will send down some day. One of them was used for all scenes except a critical closeup:
In the scenes where Al is looking at the computer and fondling one of the manuals, then Dorothy comes in to learn about the computer and ultimately fix it, one large binder was used for almost every shot. The scenes were shot out of order, starting with Dorothy fixing the computer. I thought it would be nice to use actual Systems Diagrams for that, so we chose one of the 7607 binders. Ultimately it ended up lying on the console.
That binder was too old and ratty to use for closeups and the property master had chosen one of the newer binders but didn't replace it right away.
Then next scene to be shot was Al coming in at night to look at the silent computer. Ted the director walked Kevin Costner through a couple of rehearsals then the crew set up of the first take. At this point James the property master found the newer binder and replaced it on the console. In addition to being a cleaner book, it had a nice page of block diagrams near the front that would work nicely for the scene (as long as you couldn't read any of text, which was for a 370.) It was also much thicker.
On the first take Costner picked up the binder and immediately complained that it wasn't the one he had rehearsed with and it wouldn't do. They switched the old one back in.
All but one of the takes of those scenes used the same old binder. Dorothy's scene learning the computer had to be completely rewritten because the technical jargon was all wrong. I came up with some suggestions and Ted rewrote the dialog overnight and hand printed it on a piece of yellow pad paper which he stuck into the big binder so Octavia could read her lines while actually shooting the movie. Several times during the long shots Ted fussed with the camera crews making sure they weren't getting a peek of yellow over her shoulder.
Finally it was time to do a closeup over Dorothy's shoulder as she consults the manual. The ratty old manual wouldn't do. There was a mad scramble get the other manual but now they had done the entire shoot with the skinny one, so Octavia suggested just placing the one clean page from it into the old binder, which we did in a comedy of multiple people fussing with the complicated IBM ring binder latches, with the zillion little rings, and two different latch styles between the old binder and the new one. In the movies, time is money and everything has to be done very quickly. By then Octavia knew her lines and didn't need the yellow sheet. But after all the fuss, that shot was not used in the final edit.
There was one other closeup, where Dorothy first opens the binder. For that shot only, they used the nice binder. It is the only shot in which you can clearly see the cover text. The only text on the part of that binder visible in the frame is the IBM logo - which several people noticed is the "new" one introduced, apparently, in 1972. It is now one of the Goofs for the movie on IMDB.
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