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 Google.org. 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.
- Stephen Edidin, the historical society's chief curator led the press through a tour of the exhibit just a few days before it officially opened.
- One of the first displays that visitors will encounter is one that Edidin considers to be one of the most beautiful. Some of Thomas Edison's original light bulbs, dating back to the 1880s, can be found in this case.
- The picture phone, which was developed by Bell Labs, was shown at the 1964 World's Fair. "Everybody at the fair said 'oh yeah, we’ll definitely use that,'" Edidin says. But the capacity necessary was too expensive, and it just didn't work. "It sort of disappeared way before it’s time," he says."Not everything [in this exhibit] was a huge success."
- This tabulation machine was developed in the late 1800s in order to solve a big, national problem: finishing the United States Census. "We used to do a census every 10 years, and the problem was they weren’t finished by the time of the next census," Edidin says. This machine sped up the process and made it much more accurate.
- 1952 was the first time that a news organization — CBS —used a computer (the UNIVAC) to predict the outcome of the election. But the heads of CBS didn't believe the results, so they were never broadcast. In 1956, however, the results were aired, and that broadcast can be seen at the museum. It's one of the many multimedia sections found in the exhibit.
- Though many of the items in the exhibit were donated or loaned to the museum, this Telstar satellite was found on Google. The Telstar helped perform the first live transatlantic broadcast in 1962, which you can watch directly underneath the satellite.
- The famous IBM PC, which outsold Apple's Macintosh and is widely considered to be the computer that kickstarted home computing, is on display at the museum. You can see its predecessor, the IBM 5100, in the picture behind it being held by a man to show off its "portability." (The IBM 5100 weighed about 50 lbs.)
- This console enabled IBM operators to manage what was known as the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator — an early computer made up of 12,000 vacuum tubes and 21,000 electromechanical relays. It was as big as half a football field.
- This is a tiny scale model of the Jansky Radio Wave Antenna, which was built in New Jersey in 1929 and marked the birth of radio astronomy.
- Part of the exhibit is dedicated to transistors, including this melange of some of the first objects to use them.
- There's also a sliding magnifying glass that allows close inspection of early transistors, integrated circuits, and modern microchips.
- IBM is one of the sponsors of the exhibit, and in turn the company loaned a wealth of items from its own archives. These are just some of the things on display in a section about IBM's branding over the years.
- These two IBM Selectric machines are meant to echo the Selectric Bar, a popular attraction at the 1964 World's Fair. Visitors used these electric typewriters to type on postcards, which they were able to send to their friends and family or to their homes for keeping.
- Selectrics eschewed traditional typewriter bars, and instead used interchangeable balls. This made it possible to easily switch to different typefaces, or use different languages altogether. For example, there were type balls made for Hebrew, Arabic, and various American Indian languages.
- A recreation of "Tennis for Two," thought to be one of the first —if not the first — video games is sure to be one of the more popular displays.
- Tennis for Two was built at Long Island's Brookhaven Labs by a worker who was bored on the job. He took an oscilloscope typically used to monitor rocket launches and converted it into a playable, prototypical version of Pong. Edidin says there were lines "around the block" to play it when it was shown off at one of Brookhaven's open houses.
- The original Tennis for Two oscilloscope sits next to its playable recreation, complete with an ash tray — an indispensable object of that era.
- Right next to Tennis for Two is a working, original Space Invaders arcade cabinet. This is another item that had to be found online, specifically via Facebook groups dedicated to old arcade games.
- Arcade culture is a big part of New York City's history, but when pressed, Edidin sheepishly admitted that this particular cabinet was acquired in California.
- The exhibit ends with a massive, three-dimensional projection that details some of the hundreds of tech companies that call modern New York home.