The Mainframe in Pop Culture

Last spring, the System/360 made a cameo in an episode of Mad Men as a symbol of evolving times. But that's not the only featured role the mainframe has played in pop culture. Again and again, the mainframe has appeared in film and television to signify power, change and advanced intelligence. (As the book Science in Pop Culture: A Reference Guide astutely points out, before the mid-80s, the words "computer" and "mainframe" were used interchangeably on the big and small screen.)

Next time you're in the mood for some mainframe-focused binge watching, fire up your streaming service of choice and check out one of these movies or TV shows.

The Twilight Zone - "The Old Man in the Cave" Chalk a win for the mainframe -- sort of. A decade after a nuclear apocalypse, a band of survivors relies on an "old man in the cave" who tells them what foods have been contaminated with radiation and which are safe to eat. But they're shocked to discover their hero's true identity, and suffer devastating consequences.

2001: A Space Odyssey HAL 9000 is by far one of the most famous mainframes in pop culture -- and also the most fearsome. In 2001, HAL's artificial intelligence renders him "foolproof and incapable of error." But when the astronauts begin doubting HAL's impeccable performance, they learn just how smart he can be.

Futurama - "Insane in the Mainframe" In this 2001 (coincidence?) episode of the animated series, human Fry and his robot partner Bender are sentenced to an insane asylum after being wrongly convicted of robbing a bank. The tongue-in-cheek name of that asylum? The HAL Institute for Criminally Insane Robots.

ReBoot Heralded as the first entirely computer-animated TV series, ReBoot's action took place for four seasons in the imagined interior world of the mainframe. Superfans can purchase the "Definitive Mainframe Edition" DVD set, which includes commentaries, a making-of featurette and reflections from co-creator Gavin Blair.

What's your favorite pop culture reference to the mainframe? Tell us in the comments!

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