Peripheral Vision

From Platform Studies

Peripheral Vision

Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origins of Computer Art

By Zabet Patterson

How the S-C 4020—a mainframe peripheral intended to produce scientific visualizations—shaped a series of early computer art projects that emerged from Bell Labs.





How the S-C 4020—a mainframe peripheral intended to produce scientific visualizations—shaped a series of early computer art projects that emerged from Bell Labs.

In 1959, the electronics manufacturer Stromberg-Carlson produced the S-C 4020, a device that allowed mainframe computers to present and preserve images. In the mainframe era, the output of text and image was quite literally peripheral; the S-C 4020—a strange and elaborate apparatus, with a cathode ray screen, a tape deck, a buffer unit, a film camera, and a photo-paper camera—produced most of the computer graphics of the late 1950s and early 1960s. At Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, the S-C 4020 became a crucial part of ongoing encounters among art, science, and technology. In this book, Zabet Patterson examines the extraordinary uses to which the Bell Labs SC-2040 was put between 1961 and 1972, exploring a series of early computer art projects shaped by the special computational affordances of the S-C 4020.

The S-C 4020 produced tabular data, graph plotting and design drawings, grid projections, and drawings of axes and vectors; it made previously impossible visualizations possible. Among the works Patterson describes are E. E. Zajac's short film of an orbiting satellite, which drew on the machine's graphic capacities as well as the mainframe's calculations; a groundbreaking exhibit of “computer generated pictures” by Béla Julesz and Michael Noll, two scientists interested in visualization; animations by Kenneth Knowlton and the Bell Labs artist-in-residence Stan VanDerBeek; and Lillian Schwartz's “cybernetic” film Pixillation.

Arguing for the centrality of a peripheral, Patterson makes a case for considering computational systems not simply as machines but in their cultural and historical context.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262029520 152 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 11 b&w illus.


  • This remarkable book tells the key story about the origins of contemporary algorithm culture. It shows how a single computer with special graphics peripherals was used by a number of pioneering artists in the early 1960s to create the first works of computer art. Essential reading for anybody who wants to understand our own time when algorithms are used for designing everything from architecture and special effects to analyzing every kind of data.

    Lev Manovich

    The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, author of The Language of New Media

  • The SC-4020. Not a poetic name. Yet this device lay at the origins of digital art. In an eloquent and meticulous analysis of the making and deployment of the SC-4020, Zabet Patterson gives a brilliant account of how and why devices matter, especially those that don't fit into contemporary priorities or the linear map of progress. A major contribution to the history of technology, of institutions' roles in historical process, and to our understanding of the roads less traveled that still remain to be explored in digital culture.

    Sean Cubitt

    Professor of Film and Television, and Co-Head, Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London

  • Computers are routinely used by artists these days. But do we know how the liaison was first forged? Adopting a materialist approach, this dense little book demonstrates how some of the earliest steps were taken by scientists, engineers, and would-be artists at Bell Labs, where they molded limited hardware into creative tools. And not only that: we also learn how the results were first taken out into galleries and exhibitions.

    Erkki Huhtamo

    Professor of Design | Media Arts, and Film, Television, and Digital Media, University of California, Los Angeles

  • Peripheral Vision tells the story of Bell Labs's famed engineering and arts collaborations in the 1960s. Whereas previous accounts tend to emphasize the mainframe computer as a singular, programmable device, Patterson set her sights on the peripheral machinery that made the experiments possible by making Bell Labs's Stromberg-Carlson 4020 plotter printer the main character in this riveting and timely narrative.

    Hannah B Higgins

    Professor, Department of Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago


  • Winner of the 2016 Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award sponsored by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.