Brendan Howell

The Howell Ersatz Co.

The Howell Ersatz Co. is a kind of alternative history of technological development.

Company Letterhead - 1930s

2006 – 2008

With the help of fictional devices that the company developed in the run of 20th Century, the series ironically hints at at an archaeology (despite employing the latest in technology and popular ideas) of products failed and forgotten in the marketplace.

The Company Chairman

The graphic design was largely done by Kelley Bell. It was her eye for detail and historic affect that made it possible to effectively imitate the commercial culture of the past. Graphic quality was essential to the work and any attribution thereof should go to Kelley.

The Electric Triangle

Prototype Electronic Musical Instrument (1941)

Electric Triangle displayed on a plinth.

The device never came to market due to a lack of audience along with a shift in company focus to military applications. It exists as a curious example of early engineering concepts and approaches to electronic music.

Section of the ET-1 Manual

The Doctrinaire

Magazine ad suggesting “A little time in the chair”

The Doctrinaire is another eccentric artifact from our technological past. The product was developed to allow a kind of “mind control for the home” and the package consists of a pink fiberglass chair with a stimulation helmet as well as a control console which can tune in the psycho-active colored light patterns and brain-wave-aligned audio. The exhibition was accompanied by a vintage magazine advertisement suggesting “a little time in the chair” as a way to maintain composure in the face of social pressures to succeed and conform.

Much of the effect of this piece was thanks to the brilliant generative sound composition by Matt Lavallee

The Humor Tabulator

Advertising Poster for the Humor Tabulator

The Humor Tabulator is a joke machine for managers of the 1950s. A database of office jokes, sampled from books of the era is combined with a primitive AI text-generation algorithm to generate semi-random, but absolutely original humor for any occasion. The device illustrates the connection between a time of early office automation and our current situation of data-mining and automated social interaction. A vintage poster advertising the product completes the piece.

The Thwacktrola

Magazine Ad for the Thwacktrola – “Responds to a man’s will!”

The Thwacktrola is a reference to the Volksempfänger and similar devices from the golden age of radio as a populist medium. Unusually, this radio does not have any visible control knobs or buttons. Instead, the listener controls the machine by striking it. The harder one hits, the louder the volume. Smacking the box again will turn the sound off. The exhibited device played sound from the Voice of America’s Special English program – the pedantic, official propaganda program of the US Government. A vintage magazine advertisement was exhibited with the piece.