Machina Ex Deus

Boston University 1949

Minos Generales was a political science professor at Boston University. He was also, as he told us, the last American to leave Germany in World War II. The story was full of secret travel and other intrigue. Minos was colorful in speech and mannerisms. The following school year, he left B. U. to join Don Loeffer, the former head of our department, at San Diego State University. There, Minos ran the Center for World Affairs. Later, I noted that he was listed as “professor emeritus” at National University, in San Diego.

1948-49 saw new technology come to the old 78 rpm record industry. Prior to World War II, all symphonies were recorded on large platters, with the sequence going from side to side. This meant, of course, that you had to turn the record over to hear the next movement. It was a cumbersome procedure, involving constant breaks, with trips to the record player. Changers were then developed to handle the large records, and new recordings proceeded from platter to platter, without human participation, until the entire stack had to be turned over. As a result, we had two different procedures and you had to check carefully before playing a symphony, otherwise you might be hearing the fourth movement right after the first.

In answer to all the confusion, either Stromberg-Carlson or Magnavox developed a player which could be programmed to handle either type of record sequence. The concept of the device was very clever. The records were stacked in a pile away from the turntable. A rod, holding rounded two arms, would come over to the stack; the arms would adjust to the size of the top record, lift it and bring it to the turntable. Depending upon the instructions given, the arm could place either side of the record on the turntable. This meant that the machine could handle either the old or new recording sequence.

Minos had bought a combination radio and record player and invited the political science faculty and wives to a tea and concert at his apartment. It was a semi-formal affair, in that folding chairs were placed in rows in the living room. The audience faced the marvelous new invention. We all were dressed up for the occasion. There were about twelve of us. After we had been seated, Minos gave a short explanation of the new technology, advised that the first selection of the afternoon would Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony”, pressed some buttons and sat down with the audience.

We could see the stack of records and the arm moving over from the turntable, the two rounded claws ready to do their job. When the arm reached the stack, it moved downward until the claws were adjacent to the top record. The claws then moved in smoothly and grasped the record firmly. The record was lifted high in the air and transported to the turntable. The arm descended until the record was about one inch above the turntable. It stopped for about five seconds and then rose, still holding the record. When it reached its full height, the mechanism slowly turned the record over. Down came the arm to about the same point as before, paused and rose as before. Again the record turned majestically – and continued to turn, high in the air. At just about this time it became apparent that the claws were tightening. And as the record turned and the claws tightened and tightened, the record bulged and cracked and was gradually ground into little pieces.

We all just sat there, looking straight ahead, no one saying a word. Poor Beethoven! “Well,” Minos said, “I guess that something’s wrong with the machine. I’ll get it fixed and we’ll do it again sometime.”

Minos was indeed crushed. We filed out quietly, each couple offering thanks and condolences. But it was hard not to laugh. Of course, we were never invited back, nor did Minos ever refer to the incident at our office meetings.

I have always thought of this incident as an early warning by the Machine, qua machine, that it did have a mind of its own- a word of caution to a world moving to place its faith in technology and computers. Recently, playing a game of solitaire on a computer, I suddenly found myself with two deuces of clubs and two kings of hearts. Scary.

Published in: on July 12, 2006 at 5:41 pm  Comments Off on Machina Ex Deus  
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