<D <M <Y
Y> M> D>

The Network Is The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes: In my quest for the pop culture origins of the Internet, I bought a used copy of the 1969 Disney movie The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, starring Kurt Russell. Why? Basically because Wikipedia listed it under "The ARPANET in film and other media". This got me pretty excited.

It's a little far-fetched to expect an ARPANET reference in a kids' movie released almost immediately after the ARPANET was created, but the movie does take place at a college, and I figured it was possible someone had gone to Stanford, talked to some computer people to see "what's up with computers these days", and gotten the phrase "Interface Message Processor" or something to use as a bit of set dressing.

After all, moviemakers today routinely employ science advisors to tell them that what happens in the screenplay is impossible because it violates the second law of thermodynamics; the moviemakers then decline to totally rewrite their screenplay and instead add a little scene of someone shouting "We need more thermodynamics!" I wasn't expecting accuracy, but I was hoping for a throwaway reference on a chalkboard.

But, in point of fact, Wikipedia is wrong: this movie contains absolutely no references to the ARPANET. [0] In fact, it barely contains any computer. The computer breaks about fifteen minutes in, Kurt Russell gives himself superpowers trying to fix it, and we never see it operational again. The rest of the movie focuses on Kurt Russell's new computer-like ability to scan and regurgitate a wide variety of data.

In an accidentally realistic twist, the Russell character's powers don't make him any smarter—there's no question of using him to solve the world's problems—he just knows a lot of facts. (He's also good with languages, and there's one line that claims he's solved the Chinese Room, but they don't go anywhere with this. They show him going to the UN and palling around with all the delegates, but it's not like they're asking him for advice.)

The movie also deals in an antiseptic Walt Disney way with topics like student demonstrations (misleadingly played up on the movie poster), but it all takes second place to the dean's rivalry with the dean of the nearby state college, a numbers game run by the always-enjoyable Cesar Romero, and the use of a superhuman with the powers of Wikipedia to win a trivia quiz show.

Why would someone watch this movie and think it had some reference to the ARPANET? I have no idea. I find it likely that this movie was copied into the Wikipedia entry from a more general list of old movies about computers, like this one. In the movie there's one computer component that superficially resembles an IMP, but 1) it's not an IMP, and 2) the H316 hardware used in the IMP was also used in other minicomputers, including the incorrectly-maligned Kitchen Computer, so even spotting something that looks like an IMP proves nothing.

Someone with more hardware knowledge might know what computer was used as a prop in the movie, if it's a real computer at all. Judging from glimpses of the labels on buttons, I think it's a mishmash of equipment from the early 60s that was stripped and rewired to blink randomly.

I did find one interesting bit of window-dressing: at 10:30 there's a partial shot of what looks like a cheat sheet for a computer's instruction set or operating system. It's called "POS", the instructions are divided into a "Physical Level" and a "Logical Level", and they include "EXCP", "WAIT", "OPEN FILE", "CLOSE FILE", "GET FILE", and "PUT FILE"--all of those take an argument (?) "CCB-NAME". Since the ISO networking stack has a "physical layer", it's possible someone glimpsed this card, thought "Aha! The Internet!" and rushed to Wikipedia or whatever source Wikipedia is based on. That's the best I can come up with.

If I may damn with faint praise, the first fifteen minutes of the movie are fun. The opening credits are great, with a corny sitcom-theme-style opening song (which describes a much better movie) and visuals that combine colorful 60s geometric design with computer imagery like punch card chads and reel-to-reel tape.

The first scene features a professor played by William Schallert (who'd just played the Federation bureaucrat in "The Trouble with Tribbles") trying to convince the antediluvian dean that dropping $10k on a computer (about $60k in today's money) would be a great investment for the school.

Meanwhile the loveable, nonthreatening youth of the college are eavesdropping on this conversation via transitor radio, and check this out--Kurt Russell is eighteen years old when they're filming this movie. The other kids are in their early twenties. I've been watching all these old B-movies that cast twenty-four-year-olds as high school students, and by comparison these college-age kids look too young to be in college! It's insanity.

Anyway, the kids convince local businessman Cesar Romero to donate an old computer to the college, he does so (apparently without wiping the tapes he's been using to computerize his numbers racket), there's a great scene where they set up the enormous computer, and then an interesting scene where the computer's capabilities are demonstrated (pretty realistic, by the standards of the rest of the movie). In a very strange twist, the computer breaks when the professor tries to get it to run a twenty-year-old program off a tape. (That would be a program from 1950--like a friggin' UNIVAC program or something. Supposedly this computer's twenty years old.) That's pretty much the end of the good part.

Of all the movie's inaccuracies, the worst comes at the end, when the guy who was in "The Trouble With Tribbles" reenacts the first scene with the dean, except instead of a computer, he's trying to get the dean to drop a few grand on another technological wonder, the electroheliospectrograph. Apparently computers are just a fad for this guy. Kurt Russell reprised his bland college-student character in two sequels, which employ more traditional SF gimmicks like invisibility potions and strength serums. If I'd been in charge I would have made a new stupid college computer teen comedy every few years as a kind of marker to track society's feelings towards computers through the 70s and 80s.

I watched the movie with Pat, 1) to make watching a bad old movie bearable, 2) to have another pair of eyes looking for ARPANET references. Pat's opinion: "They should do a sequel starring Kurt Russell as he is now."

The movie was remade with Kirk Cameron in 1995, and it's possible that movie is the one with the reference to the Internet, but I'm not really interested in something that late.

[0] I got a used DVD of the movie, and there were a few seconds of skipped video. It's possible the elusive ARPANET reference was in there. It's very very unlikely.


Unless otherwise noted, all content licensed by Leonard Richardson
under a Creative Commons License.