It started with a T-shirt.
The product designer and mechanical engineer Tamiko Thiel was working for the Cambridge, Massachusetts, company Thinking Machines. She and her colleagues were building a supercomputer that proposed a radical new concept. Instead of using one giant processor to crunch large amounts of data, they were going to use thousands of processors that would tackle little parts of the data-crunching one by one. It was the early 1980s, and Thinking Machines was trying to build an artificially intelligent machine based on the human brain. As the project’s lead designer, Thiel was charged with the question: What should this new kind of technology look like?
It was a hard question to answer, because most computers at the time resembled refrigerators–and because it would be difficult to convince the company’s future clients that yet another giant beige box was truly a new kind of machine. The stakes for the supercomputer’s industrial design were high.
Months earlier, Thiel had designed a logo for the company that visualized a hypercube–a 12-dimensional cube-in-a-cube that was the underlying structure of the supercomputer’s hardware. She printed it on T-shirts for the team–which would gain greater fame when the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman wore it in an early Apple “Think Different” advertisement.
The logo was the perfect metaphor: a symbolic abstraction that expressed the deeper functions of the machine they were building. So Thiel began to translate her visualization into a real, working prototype for the supercomputer’s hardware. The result? The now iconic Connection Machine, a supercomputer made of eight black cubes that form a larger cube, with transparent panels that reveal the blinking lights of the 4,096 chips whirring away inside. Now, 30 years after its invention, the Connection Machine has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, where it is currently on view as part of the exhibition Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989.
The Connection Machine’s design was so striking that it influenced Steve Jobs, according to Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’s colleague at NeXT who worked with him after he was kicked out of Apple, and a friend of Thiel’s.
“[Joanna] told me way after the fact–way too late!–that Steve Jobs came to her and said, ‘Find out who designed the Connection Machine, I want them to design my NeXT computer,'” Thiel recalls. “She said, ‘Sorry you’re too late. Tamiko’s gone to Germany to become an artist. I’m going, ‘Joanna, you should have found me!’”
Regardless, the design seemed to stick in Jobs’s mind. Thiel points to the design of Jobs’s products before and after the Connection Machine. While usability and design were always important to him, there was a notable departure between the original Macintosh, and the NeXTcube, which took the form of a perfect, black cube–very similar to the Connection Machine: “[The Macintosh] still looked like, well, a cute little nerdy computer, but still a nerdy beige computer. And with the NeXT Cube, which really was a perfect cube, it was a designed form that was separate from the necessities of computer design.”
From there, Jobs’s design aesthetic continued in a similarly minimalist vein with the iMacs, iPods, and eventually iPhones. “They were all sort of objects from outer space. Each one had this quality of the sublime that went beyond their functionality as an object into imagining a different sphere of human existence,” Thiel says. While Jobs never directly acknowledged her impact during his lifetime, the combination of Hoffman’s testimony paired with the evolution of Apple design point to the Connection Machine’s lasting influence on the products that many of us still use.
Perhaps that’s why today, the Connection Machine’s rectilinear, geometric form feels like an obvious form for the computer to take. “It was not obvious. We’re talking 1983, before the Macintosh came out,” Thiel says. “The general image of computers was IBM computers, racks of electronics. They looked like refrigerators or heating units. They didn’t have any identity.”
Thiel’s influential ideas about computer design are rooted in her background. Thiel’s father was a naval engineer and architect turned Bauhaus-influenced designer who knew and worked with luminaries like Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. “I grew up in a household that was ‘form follows function,‘” Thiel says. “Basically design had to be functional and it had to express its function. And this was 1 of the 10 commandments in our household.”
When faced with the problem of how to design the form of a supercomputer that was based on the human brain and had the potential to herald a new dawn of computing, Thiel originally thought to put it inside a glass box. But she realized that simply showing the machine’s mechanical parts didn’t give any indication what it did–its function was encoded on tiny chips that even experts wouldn’t be able to see using only their eyes. Instead, the machine’s symbolic function was far more important to demonstrate. So she began to talk to the team’s engineers, to learn about the metaphors they used to describe the nature of the machine. That’s when she remembered her hypercube logo, which became the model for her industrial design.
The Connection Machine’s final form doesn’t just give shape to the internal structure of the device–it also gives the machine a powerful presence of its own, designed to match its groundbreaking technology. As Thiel recalls Thinking Machines founder Danny Hillis telling their team: “We want to build a machine that can be proud of us.” The saying, which cheekily points to the team’s goal of building an artificial intelligence, shows that the industrial design of the Connection Machine was an important goal for the engineers behind the project as well.
It also helped give expression to their hope in the future of computing. “I was steeped in all the science fiction visions and the [idea that] we will build artificial intelligences that will surpass us and hopefully be our companions and not our overlords,” Thiel says. “I wanted personally to express these fantasies, these visions of what we were building, or what the machine could evolve into.”
The Connection Machine’s design had another important role: to sell supercomputers at a time when the supercomputer market was virtually nonexistent. In fact, Thiel says that most other people working on supercomputers and researching AI thought the ideas behind the Connection Machine were pure ivory tower silliness. “If you bring a new customer into a computer room and you say, you’ve never seen a machine like this before in your life, and you show them something that looks like their refrigerator back home, you’re going to have a lot of work to do to convince them,” Thiel says. “If you can bring them into the room, they stop dead in their tracks, their jaw drops, and they say, ‘Oh my god, I’ve ever seen anything like this before in my life’–you’ve convinced them emotionally. At a deep down level you speak to their own fantasies and visions of what the future can bring.”
The Connection Machine was a success–to an extent. In 1989, the second generation of Connection Machine, the CM-2, which Thiel designed, won the Gordon Bell Prize as the fastest machine on the planet, and its fifth generation successor won the same prize in 1993. At a time when computers weren’t powerful enough to recognize human faces or process natural language, the Connection Machine was indexing texts and identifying what it thought were important concepts. Before the internet, it was the first search engine where you could type in a natural language query and get an answer. It could even navigate–a proto-version of the mapping services we all use today with the tap of a touch screen.
But there wasn’t a market for these devices outside of scientific research or big business, including Dow Jones–“You weren’t going to get someone to put a Connection Machine in your car as you drive down the Mass Pike,” Thiel says–and the company’s intense focus on AI research, combined with government funds drying up after the Cold War, eventually contributed to its demise. Thiel herself went on to live in Germany, where she’s still based, to pursue a career as an artist. She creates installations with augmented and virtual reality and has exhibited her artwork all over the world. This year, she’s one of Google’s Tilt Brush Artists-in-Residence.
We live in a different era today. Artificial intelligence has arrived and is trickling into everything we do online, from the way we unlock our phones to how we do our jobs. Now, with the MoMA exhibition, the Connection Machine is getting its due. “We felt like we’d come up with a design that was revolutionary, that could change the way people looked at computers or technological products,” Thiel says. “Thirty years later it’s a confirmation when the MoMA Design Department acquires it, saying, ‘Yes, we do think this is very, very important.'”