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Silicon City: New York's forgotten role in the history of computers

Touring the New York Historical Society's newest exhibition

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When you think of the history of computers, it's easy to mentally jump right into the garages and basements of Silicon Valley, or even the Silicon Prairie of Texas that is so moodily depicted in Halt and Catch Fire. You probably don't, however, immediately think of New York.

New York has a history as long, if not longer, than some of the other places in this country that often flaunt the word "silicon" in their nicknames. And it's why, this weekend, the New York Historical Society is opening an half-year-long exhibit called Silicon City. "This is a story that has been forgotten by many, many people, especially after Northern California stole the spotlight," Louise Mirrer, president of the New York Historical Society, says.


The exhibit is heavily influenced by the 1964 World's Fair, which was held in Queens and played a big role in the popularization of computers. "Before then, computing was something that was thought of as business, science, even defense and military," Stephen Edidin, the museum's chief curator, says. "What happened at the fair is that computers were allowed to be presented to everybody."

Much of this happened in what's known as "The Egg," IBM's dome-shaped pavilion at the fair. Visitors to the Silicon City exhibit begin their journey in a small-scale version of The Egg, where they can watch footage of those fair-goers experiencing computers for the first time.

After this, the exhibit really begins, transforming into a physical timeline of computing in New York. You could, honestly, move through the entire thing in less than 30 seconds. It's not massive by any means. But with more than 300 items, you'd be wise to take as much time as you can. Maybe you've never seen a 5 1/4 floppy disk before, or played Space Invaders on an original cabinet. Maybe you never saw the first transatlantic satellite broadcast, or the satellite that made it possible. Maybe you didn't even know these things existed.

The whole exhibit echoes the 1964 World's Fair

These things and many more (some of which you can see in the photos below) are on display through April of 2016 at the museum, thanks in part to generous loans from partners like IBM and In fact, Google is even offering free coding workshops and exhibition field trips to all New York City schools (as well as all "Tier 1" schools outside the city) in tandem with the Silicon City exhibit.

The story that the exhibit doesn't tell is why New York lost this proverbial computer war with California — a story that will hopefully someday warrant an exhibit all its own. But Silicon City tells the New York with extreme care and detail, and is certainly worth the $20 admission.


The Silicon City exhibit opens this weekend and will run through April of 2016.