John Whitney’s use of analogue computers

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Pioneer computer animator, John Whitney Sr, went to the length of building his own analogue computer in the 1950s in order to achieve effects that were unique to this new platform. He later combined music and moving images in animations such as Arabesque, which exploited the geometric abilities of early computer systems to produce a shimmering carpet of interlacing forms on a screen, accompanied by Arabic music.

[Plate XVI: Whitney Arabesque]

Arabesque 1975

Whitney too saw part of the attraction of the computer as its protean flexibility of form, allowing such a range of images to be created in a medium whose boundaries were limited only by the capabilities of its programmers, rather than by physical limitations:

Computer graphic instruments are interesting for their possibilities for generating motion. In fact, there exists a vast unexplored world of movement and rhythm in abstract space which is now realizable thanks to this type of hardware.[1]

Indeed, because the computer image derived so closely from programming, Whitney and others could link it directly to music, which sprang from an ancient urge to define visual art with notation and thus relate it with musical harmony.

Whitney’s roots were in experimental film: he spoke of his prewar experiences in Paris, meeting Rene Leibowitz and experimenting with 8mm cameras, as the origin of this interest. Whitney himself claims that only later did he discover Oskar Fischinger and the abstract animators. He also encountered Man Ray in Pasadena, around the time he began working with abstract films.[2] Whitney’s original experiments with 8mm film and optical printer, which allowed him to reproduce and filter sequences of film, allowed him to control the rhythmical actions and permutations of his animations. Thus, around 1944, Whitney already had the notion of a controllable animated form; all that remained was to automate the movement of the camera. He also used jazz music as the basis for some of his compositions, which he would animate in real time, using musical cues to assist his creativity.[3]

According to Moritz, Whitney had already used pendulums and “an oil-wipe instrument” to make abstract films; and he had made his characteristic connection between visual images and music. By the early 1950s he began to construct mechanical drawing machines, followed by a systems to automate the movement of cameras around a piece of static art. These interests, claimed William Moritz, sprang from Whitney’s work at Lockheed during the Second World War on high-speed missile technology.[4] It was here that he grasped how the trajectories calculated by gun aiming equipment could also plot graphs and determine movements for artistic usage. It was these devices he eventually purchased in a surplus sale in 1956, which he then reassembled to control cameras, using the mechanical movers in conjunction with Selsyn motors to manoeuvre the camera above the artwork.

Artwork consisting usually of film negatives of typography or rudimentary abstract patterns (clear images on an overall black field) could be orbited, rotated or moved in a great variety of compound sine function excursions within the twelve-inch light field. The camera was motorized to advance one frame automatically at the instant of the completion of one cycle of the artwork motion. […] The pattern that is produced, moving as it does, smoothly, and expanding outwardly, will continue to hold visual interest if only as a simple attractive abstract pattern.[5]

Whitney realised in retrospect that he had built a machine for performing many of the functions now handled by general-purpose digital computers. It was a path he followed from pendulums, through drawing machines to a more flexible, programmable computer: “It was only with a kind of hindsight, a kind of delayed double-take, that I realized I was working with a machine that was really a mechanical model of the modern digital computer graphic systems”.[6] Whitney had effectively constructed a graphics computer avant la lettre; importantly, a machine that fitted his working practices and developed alongside his art.

John Whitney's animation computer

Yet his animations were themselves influential in the field of computer graphics and animation; indeed, Whitney ended up trying to recreate his mechanical system on a digital computer when he was appointed to an IBM artist’s fellowship in the late 1960s. Now the mechanical and analogue computers seem like an evolutionary side-branch, an eventual dead-end because the digital computer could both simulate and assimilate their functionality. But would it have been used for computer art in the same way if pioneers like Whitney had not constructed purpose-built computers for these tasks?

As the interviewer noted of the sequences produced with this machinery, Whitney’s demo reel Catalog, “It looked like a lot of oscilloscope images very carefully controlled and moving in a very precise fashion.”[7] Whitney concurred: he was in effect calculating paths mechanically, where a true computer would draw a line on a cathode ray tube. Yet his analogue films have a definite character, especially in the spiralling patterns and twisting forms, that is not present in the altogether more sober output of early computer graphics. Also, they had the great advantage that the input and output was wholly visual and worked in real-time, unlike the cumbersome programming and patient waiting required of contemporary computer systems.

This marks the important break with past attempts at kinetic and animated art. Even though, as Cuba says, Whitney never became a programmer, he certainly entered into the spirit of Computer Art. Cuba programmed his IBM system for the animation Arabesque because Whitney’s skills lay in mechanical devices. Nevertheless, Cuba explained that Whitney’s software was a very personal artistic tool, shaped to his particular needs. However, he was more widely perceived as a film maker and perhaps this is why many histories of Computer Art rarely feature him very prominently. Because they focus more on the early digital work, they forget the longer heritage of analogue computers and experimental film.

William Moritz rightly contrasts Whitney’s specialised, personalised software with contemporaneous work by Lillian Schwartz and Stan Van Der Beek using Ken Knowlton’s BEFLIX program at Bell. Because of BEFLIX’s limitations, all these artists’ work seemed to have a uniformity and a ceiling on the artistic results.[8]

The animator Robert Darroll pointed out that Whitney had in many ways pursued his own path, both for analogue and digital computers, and that at a crucial point he was overtaken by developments elsewhere. Yet he continued on his own way throughout his later years. Perhaps he became so wedded to his technology that he could not change, or did his underlying art structures require his individual particular take on technology?[9]


[1] “Computer Art for the Video Picture Wall”, from Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art, John Whitney Sr (1980, X) p194

[2] Whitney, Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art, John Whitney Sr (1980, X) p174

[3] Whitney, Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art, John Whitney Sr (1980, X) p176

[4] Moritz, William, “Digital Harmony: The Life of John Whitney, Computer Animation Pioneer”, Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.5, August 1997.

[5] American Cinematographer, Jan 1971, “Animation Mechanisms” p26

[6] Excerpts from talk given at California Institute of Technology – 3/21/68, Digital Harmony

[7] Whitney, Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art, John Whitney Sr (1980, X) p176

[8] Moritz, William, “Digital Harmony: The Life of John Whitney, Computer Animation Pioneer”, Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.5, August 1997.

[9] Interview with Robert Darroll, July 2001, Los Angeles.