NYHS’ Silicon City Exhibit: Back to the Past and the Future

Tracing New York’s roots as a technology hub.

NYHS Silicon City IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Operator Console 1948 Courtesy of IBM Corporation ArchivesThough the digital revolution may be largely perceived as a West Coast phenomenon, it was clearly bi-coastal. New York paved the way for a broad array of technological advances through the early 1980s and again in recent years. Many of these inventions are highlighted at New York Historical Society’s (NYHS) new exhibit, Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York, on view from Nov. 13 through April 17, 2016.

Corporate and agency media labs are in vogue now, but this comprehensive showcase is open to the public. The multimedia exhibit displays the wide ranging influence of technology created in New York and how it transformed telecommunications, branding, art, design, gaming, music and news. Museum visitors seeking nostalgia will find nearly 180 artifacts spanning several decades.

NYHS Silicon City Stan VanDerBeek Poemfield LifeAt Tuesday’s press preview, chief curator Stephen Edidin outlined key items and themes. While we’re familiar with the fact that computers gradually shrank over time from large machines to mini devices, the sight of huge consoles (like IBM’s SSEC, pictured) and giant CD disks is still striking. It was more surprising to learn that in the earlier days, IBM trained many women in computer systems and they played a key role.

IBM’s ongoing contributions to New York’s tech industry have been integral. The exhibit recreates IBM’s 1964 World’s Fair Pavilion, aka “the egg,” where the public got a preview of everyday life with computing. Before then, computers had been used primarily for science and military purposes. Also on display at the fair and at the museum: a typewriter bar with a red IBM Selectric, (pictured), a model with interchangeable fonts and languages.

NYHS Silicon City Tennis for Two Computer Game CroppedComputers also impacted the political process, and in 1952 CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite used a Univac computer to predict that Eisenhower won the presidential election. Edidin said it was the first instance computers were used in this capacity, though not everyone at the time was on board.

Among the notable telecomms items: a Telstar communications satellite from 1962 installed in a gallery ceiling, and lent by the owner who was discovered via a Google search. There’s also ATT’s Picturephone 2 model, which served as a precursor to Apple’s FaceTime, but was costly and hard to use, so it didn’t catch on.

Technology has also been combined with art and with gaming in different ways. Selected video films from the 1960s are projected inside a geodesic dome, like filmmaker Stan Van Der Beek’s 8-part Poemfield series (life still image pictured) where he collaborated with Bell Labs. On the gaming side, Tennis for Two, created at Brookhaven National Lab in 1952, was one of the first computer games. The lab did a show and tell for neighbors and the game became popular.

NYHS Silicon City IBM Watson Jeopardy Podium CroppedThe tech industry moved to the West Coast when computers were portable enough that you could move them out of the city, Edidin noted, so the exhibit devotes little space to the 1990s. But in the final gallery wall-sized digital maps of Manhattan and Brooklyn show the growth of startups that have reinvigorated Silicon Alley as New York regains attention. Yet despite the industry spotlight moving back and forth, Edidin expressed gratitude for the cooperation and support of West Coast-based companies like Google and particularly the partnership with the Computer History Museum in Google’s hometown of Mountainview, California.

Visual images detailing IBM’s Watson project are in the outside hallway where visitors exit. The computer’s ability to read and process millions of pieces of information and understand natural language has been well documented. Also on hand (and pictured): the IBM Watson podiums used by contestants on Jeopardy!

Images of IBM SSEC console and IBM Selectric courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives

Video still image of Stan Van Der Beek’s Poemfield #2 © Estate of Stan VanDerBeek