Nuggets from the AT&T Archive

Robot by Jim Henson, 1963

Jim Henson made this film in 1963 for The Bell System. Specifically, it was made for an elite seminar given for business owners, on the then-brand-new topic — Data Communications. The seminar itself involved a lot of films and multimedia presentations, and took place in Chicago. A lengthy description of the planning of the Bell Data Communications Seminar — sans a mention of the Henson involvement — is on the blog of Inpro co-founder Jack Byrne. It later was renamed the Bell Business Communications Seminar.

The organizers of the seminar, Inpro, actually set the tone for the film in a three-page memo from one of Inpro’s principals, Ted Mills to Henson. Mills outlined the nascent, but growing relationship between man and machine: a relationship not without tension and resentment: “He [the robot] is sure that All Men Basically Want to Play Golf, and not run businesses — if he can do it better.” (Mills also later designed the ride for the Bell System at the 1964 World’s Fair.) Henson’s execution is not only true to Mills’ vision, but he also puts his own unique, irreverent spin on the material.

The robot narrator used in this film had previously starred in a skit for a food fair in Germany (video is silent), in 1961. It also may be the same robot that appeared on the Mike Douglas Show in 1966. Henson created a different — but similar — robot for the SKF Industries pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.

This film was found in the AT&T Archives. Thanks go to Karen Falk of the Henson Archives for providing help and supporting documentation to prove that it was, indeed, a Henson production.

Footage courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ

Charlie Magnetico, by Jim Henson

This is the second (long lost!) film that Jim Henson made for the Bell Data Communications Seminar in 1963. (More on the Seminar and the first film, Robot, here). Charlie Magnetico stars Henson’s first robot puppet, as well as his collaborator and first employee, Jerry Juhl. Henson had found Juhl working with Frank Oz in the early ’60s, but Oz was still in high school, so Juhl was Henson’s first hire.

Juhl stars as not only “Charlie Magnetico: of Magnetico Electronics Incorporated,” but also as Charlie’s mother. In the film, Magnetico makes a small — but important — electronics part, used universally. When communications problems begin to plague Charlie’s small shop, they create catastrophes of supply and demand that wreak a particular Henson-y (and explode-y) kind of havoc on, especially, the rocket industry. Those problems, in this film, are solved by Data Communications — and by the machines.

Juhl’s collaborations with Henson, especially in the late 1960s, with their commercial work for IBM and American Oil, return to the theme of the interactions of man and machine (and their subsequent difficulties!). Juhl’s interest turned to writing late in the decade, and besides penning some science fiction, he contributed greatly to the crafting of the Sesame Street and Muppets characters’ personalities. He later became the head writer for The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock.

Early in the 1970s, he moved to California. And he was able to work with his peers, who were located in New York, via Data Communications! Juhl was an early adopter of modem technology, and it allowed him to continue to do his work with Henson for decades. This film was found in the AT&T Archives. Thanks go to Karen Falk of the Henson Archives for providing help and supporting documentation to prove that it was, indeed, a Henson production.

Footage courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ

The Hello Machine, by Caroll Ballard

Directed by Carroll Ballard (Never Cry Wolf, The Black Stallion), The Hello Machine is a short, wordless film-poem, in which he chronicles the building of an entire ESS Mainframe. It’s one of the best films in the AT&T Archives, a poetic musing on the connections between handwork and the act of communicating. In the film, he chronicles the act of making and building the mainframe with human hands so carefully that it becomes a handcraft, like weaving or sewing. As he elevates the frameworker to the status of craftperson, the mainframe itself becomes an artistic masterpiece, then brought to life by electricity. Ballard’s stance is that it takes humans to connect humans, not machines.

There’s a little irony in the title: “The Hello Machine” used to be a nickname for the telephone, but Alexander Graham Bell, the machine’s inventor, always thought that “Ahoy” would be a better greeting for a phone call than “Hello”. “Hello” was more of Thomas Edison’s idea, and is, of course, the one that stuck. In fact, the word wasn’t quite as popular as a greeting in English UNTIL the telephone became widely used.

Richard Rosmini’s superb soundtrack drives Ballard’s points home, with a composition heavy on the strings (like wires!)–old-timey-sounding 12-string guitar and banjo mixed with electronics.

Produced and Directed by Carroll Ballard
Music by Richard Rosmini

Footage courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ