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Michael Stevenson    
  Hydromechanical Analogue Research Archive (2002-)

“This archive documents my encounters with the world's first economic computer – a dedicated hydromechanical analogue from the 1950's. Known as the Phillips Machine, the hydraulic computer was developed at the London School of Economics by the New Zealand economist Bill Phillips who was at the time enrolled as a student. The Phillips Machine, standing almost 2m high is a representation of fiscal and monetary flows in a national economy.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the machine is that it gives the national economy - that omnipotent yet invisible being – a physical body. In contrast to electronic computers of the day it is extremely visual: a fixed volume of water - dyed red to represent money – is pumped like blood through a circulatory system of transparent pipes and slices. The fluid accumulation in the various holding tanks becomes the measure for the economic data. Phillips built the machine to comprehend for himself certain theoretical problems. The solution to build a fluid model may trace back to his earlier employment on a hydroelectric dam and in the dairy industry.

The Phillips Machine soon became a popular teaching tool in university economics departments. In total perhaps 15 were produced and shipped to cities world wide including, Chicago, Rotterdam, Melbourne, Istanbul, Boston and Guatemala City.

Professors at the VU University in Amsterdam built their own version of the machine called the ECOCIRC, and in the U.S., the noted economist, Abba P. Lerner marketed and sold the machine, under another name - the Moniac. Lerner's enthusiastic efforts lead to several sales including one that has been particularly of interest to me. In 1953 a machine was sold to the Banco de Guatemala (the Central Bank of Guatemala).

My unfulfilled search for the lost Moniac purchased by the Central Bank led me to construct a facsimile of that model. Much of the research material here pertains to the search and the reconstruction. My exemplar then became the centerpiece of an installation that charts, amongst other things, a peculiar 20th century export - Western economists and their quixotic quests in the tropical world. My machine was not presented in perfect working condition rather it was in a decrepit, ruinous state. It ran, but only in the most precarious manner.

Research for the construction of the new machine has put me in contact with virtually the entire circle of moniac enthusiasts. Material from these wider sources also forms part of this archive. The dry model on display here is from 1953. It is infact a copy, the machine produced at the VU University in Amsterdam, ie. the ECOCIRC. It is in itself significant in several respects. In terms of visualizations this machine not only represents a nation’s economy but also - as a locally fabricated alternative to the imported British model – the ECOCIRC becomes a visualization of the economic principle of import substitution. This local variant is not identical to the other machines, it includes an auxiliary circulating loop that represents the black market.”