by Phil Johnson

The Technology of WarGames

Jun 17, 2013 5 mins
Computers and Peripherals

The classic hacker movie, which just turned 30, also featured some classic computer hardware, both on-screen and off.

Geeks who came of age in the early 1980s had many reasons to wish they lived in the bedroom of WarGames’ fictional hacker, David Lightman (played by Matthew Broderick). Aside from the fact that Ally Sheedy was in there a lot, David’s bedroom was packed full of classic computer hardware. Even off screen, some famous systems were used to make that movie magic happen. Here are ten pieces of computer technology that went into making this nerd favorite.

For more detailed descriptions of the history of the technology used in the making of the movie, read this excellent background provided by Todd Fischer who provided (and still owns) the movie’s famous computer.

IMSAI FDC-2 dual 8-inch floppy drive

Remember floppy disk drives? Not just the little 3 ½ inch versions, and not the just 5 ¼ inch ones that preceded those, but the really big 8 inch floppies? Well, David Lightman sure knew about them, as his setup included an IMSAI FDC-2 dual floppy drive, which housed two Calcomp 142 8 inch drives. Double density disks could each store about 1MB of data. Other types of storage that could be used with the IMSAI 8080 were 5 ¼ inch floppies, cassette tapes and paper tape. Fischer, who supplied the original drive for the movie, says it was damaged in shipping and no longer exists.

IMSAI IKB-1 keyboard

Though the IMSAI 8080 could be programmed using the switches on the front panel, IMSAI did also offer a keyboard. The IMSAI IKB-1 Intelligent keyboard is what you see in David Lightman’s room (and in the movie poster). The IKB-1 keyboard was programmable; the one used in the movie (seen here) was programmed to produce a specific output with a just a few keystrokes by Matthew Broderick. 

Electrohome 17″ monitor

The black and white monitor in David Lightman’s bedroom was an Electrohome 17”, similar to, but larger than, the one shown here. Electrohome was a Canadian electronics manufacturer founded in 1907. Along with consumer goods such as radio, record players and TVs, Electrohome made arcade game monitors for Atari and Sega in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The brand is now owned by another Canadian company, Circus World Displays (CWD).

IMSAI (Cermetek) 212A modem

The modem David Lightman used to connect his computer to the outside world, as seen here and in the movie, was an IMSAI 212A. In reality though, it was only labeled that way for the movie. IMSAI never actually produced or sold such a modem. What was actually used in the movie was a Cermetek 212A modem, which could communicate at 1200 (!) baud.

Acoustic coupler

Back in the day before computer modems could be directly connected to a phone line, phone handsets were placed in acoustic couplers connected to a computer, in order to convert sounds to electrical signals (and vice versa). In WarGames, an acoustic coupler is used prominently by David Lightman. Ironically, though, it wasn’t actually needed since his ISMAI (er, Cermetek) 212A modem didn’t need a coupler. It was included purely for the visual effect. Ahh, movie magic!

CompuPro System 8/16 computer

The display seen on David Lightman’s monitor wasn’t actually generated by the IMSAI 8080. Instead, it was generated by a CompuPro 8086 system computer, like this System 8/16. Matthew Broderick would type predefined keystrokes which would, through the programmable IKB-1 keyboard, trigger this off-screen computer to send the desired output to the Electrohome monitor. The 8/16 was another computer that, like IMSAI 8080, used S100 bus architecture and ran the CP/M operating system.

IBM AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central

The black and white film of a young Dr. Falken shown in WarGames includes part of the largest computer system ever built, the IBM AN/FSG-7 Combat Direction Central. This system was used as part of the U.S. Air Force’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system to track and intercept enemy bombers during the Cold War. In all, two dozen SAGE systems were installed across the United States and Canada. They became operational in 1963 and remained in use for 20 years. Each installation weighed 250 tons, took up 20,000 square feet and had 60,000 vacuum tubes. Parts of these systems have been featured on many other TV shows in movies over the years, including Spaceballs, Sleeper and Lost in Space.

HP 9845C computer

As WOPR plays Global Thermonuclear War in WarGames, it’s followed closely by officials at NORAD on a dozen large wall displays. In order to generate the graphics, an HP 9845C desktop computer was used. The 9845C came out in late 1980, and was intended for high-end scientific and engineering design and illustration and allowed for input via a light pen and graphics tablet. The illustrations for the 12 large wall screen displays were generated via four 9845Cs and recorded to movie film from a high resolution display, about half a million frames in all, in a process that took 10 months.

Apple II computer

Don’t recall seeing an Apple II in WarGames? Well, true, you didn’t. However, the countdown display on NORAD’s War Operation Plan Response system (WOPR), which itself was a fictional computer built mainly out of plywood, was powered by an Apple II. Mike Fink, the Special Effects Supervisor for the movie, sat inside the WOPR and generated the display using an Apple II connected to an early (fluorescent) flat-panel screen. The Apple II, of course, first came out in 1977 and became one of the most successful personal computers ever manufactured, with more than 5 million units sold over the life of the series between 1977 and 1993.