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Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York

On view November 13, 2015 – April 17, 2016

NEW YORK, NY (June 25, 2015) – This fall, the New-York Historical Society will celebrate New York’s central role in the digital revolution, highlighting the pioneering work and technological innovations that have transformed daily life. Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York, on view November 13, 2015 – April 17, 2016, will present the city as a technological hub where the intersection of commerce and innovation gave birth to the first computers and tech companies.

“Although many assume that the West Coast was the birthplace of digital computing, New York played a seminal role in developing innovative technologies that we simply cannot live without today,” explained Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “New Yorkers should be proud of their visionary forebears whose experiments transformed the region into a hotbed of discovery. Silicon City will show how they brought about a whole new world.”

Organized by New-York Historical’s Chief Curator Stephen Edidin with assistance from Research Associate Cristian Panaite, the exhibition presents a dynamic timeline of computer-related milestones in the New York region from the late-1800s to the 1980s, and concludes with a multimedia showcase of the firms and individuals who have reinvigorated today’s city as a digital capital. It features over 300 artifacts, including early computers and telecommunications hardware, archival materials, photographs, digital artworks, and interactive experiences that will immerse visitors in the decades-long evolution of technology.

Exhibition Highlights

The exhibition will welcome visitors with an experiential retelling of the moment that introduced the general public to computing: the IBM Pavilion at the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair. Every 15 minutes for nearly a year, 500 curious visitors entered the Eero Saarinen-designed theater known as “the egg” to view a multimedia experience called “THINK” by Charles and Ray Eames. This physical and multimedia recreation of the egg experience will be complemented by vintage posters and archival materials from the fair, transporting visitors back in time to the dawn of the Information Age.

Upon exiting “the egg”, visitors will be immersed in the first thematic section of the exhibition’s technology timeline: Computers and Hardware. New York-based innovations that laid the groundwork for the computer revolution will be highlighted, including: Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph (1840s); Thomas Edison’s early light bulbs (1880s) and the voltage experiments that inspired vacuum tubes at the heart of early computers; and a punched card machine (1890s), the analog data system used in early corporate accounting and the launch of the U.S. Social Security Administration. The exhibition will consider the evolution of civilian computing following World War II-era military research, including IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (1948). A massive machine covered with switches and blinking lights, the SSEC was developed by astronomer Wallace Eckert of Columbia University to track the positions of planets and moons. Great leaps were made in the 1950s-60s through the development of customizable mainframe computers, storage devices, and programming languages.  COBOL—initiated by Grace Hopper and the Defense Department, and FORTRAN—invented under John Backus at IBM—fueled the development of flexible business machines powered by customizable software. An IBM System/360 (1964) will be exhibited as a prime example, with its evolutionary principles fully realized in a nearby example of the IBM 5150 Personal Computer (1981) that became ubiquitous on desktops across America.

Today’s wired world depends on a global communications network with historic roots in New York. Throughout the 20th century, New York-based AT&T and its Bell Laboratories pioneered the communications technology and infrastructure behind today’s Internet: digital phone lines, fiber optic cables, and satellites. Thanks to the Nobel-prize winning work of John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain, Bell Labs unveiled the transistor in 1947, which fueled technological miniaturization, portable devices (like radios), and, eventually, the microchip.  An original Telstar 1, the satellite used to televise the first live images from space on July 23, 1962—views of the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and New York Harbor—will be installed from the gallery’s ceiling. AT&T’s Picturephone 2 Model, a precursor to Apple’s FaceTime, will be on display with photographs of the “see-as-you-talk” conversation between First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in Washington and Mayor Robert Wagner of New York.

The worlds of Art and Computing intersected in New York, inspiring creative experimentation on all sides. This exhibition section will feature an immersive landscape of video art from the 1960s projected inside a geodesic dome. Works on view will include Bell Labs engineers’ collaborations with Robert Rauschenberg, Lillian Schwartz, and Stan VanDerBeek, uniting New York’s role as a computing pioneer with its preeminence in the art world.

The relationship between creative and technological forces is further considered in a section dedicated to Identity, Branding, and Design. New York, home to both Wall Street and Madison Avenue, took center stage in the transformation of computers from laboratory tools to consumer products. Under both Thomas Watson, Sr. and Thomas Watson, Jr., IBM developed a strong and recognizable identity that married its technical innovation with Madison Avenue savvy, as seen through its THINK magazine and other slogan-adorned ephemera and examples of its iconic advertisements and product packaging designed by Paul Rand.  Specimens such as IBM’s iconic Selectric typewriter—epitomizing its consumer-oriented industrial design under Eliot Noyes—will be available for visitors to try at the exhibition’s typewriter “bar.”

The exhibition’s next section will illuminate New York’s pioneering role in developing the Graphics, Music and Games that have transformed the way we perceive and interact with the world. Computerized musical instruments invented by Bell Labs engineer Max Mathews—whose work inspired HAL 9000’s musical solo “Bicycle for Two” at the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey—will also be displayed, including the groundbreaking electronic violin he first wired to a computer and wrote software for in 1957. A recreation of the Tennis for Two Electronic Gamedesigned in 1958 by Nobel Prize-winning physicist William A. Higinbotham at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island—will look back to the true genesis of video games. The rise and decline of 1970s-80s video game arcades in New York will be commemorated with a playable 1978 Space Invaders game in its original cabinet.

Although the computer industry shifted attention to the West Coast beginning in the 1980s, New York remained a vibrant center of technology and a city-wide resurgence is now underway. The exhibition will close with Regaining the Spotlight, a high-energy media presentation that will celebrate New York’s spirit of innovation, map the growth of technology companies based in the city’s neighborhoods, and share the stories of key thinkers and entrepreneurs who helped ignite New York’s digital renaissance.

New-York Historical Society acknowledges with gratitude the generous cooperation of IBM in the development of Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York. Support for this exhibition has been provided by Google.org, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, The Achelis and Bodman Foundations, Citi, Watson Foundation, AT&T, and The May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc.

Education Programs

Through the generous support of Google.org, the New-York Historical Society will provide free coding workshops and exhibition field trips for thousands of New York City students. Visiting students of all grade levels will tour Silicon City, engaging with images, artifacts, and interactives, and then learn to code using curricula developed by Google’s CS First, with activities tailored for students at every level of skill and ability. This remarkable opportunity is available free of charge to all New York City schools and all Title I Schools outside the city.

Public and Family Programs

Public Programming organized in conjunction with the exhibition Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York will feature a range of distinguished historians and thinkers:

  • Niall Ferguson on his new biography of Henry Kissinger
  • David E. Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, on current cybersecurity concerns
  • Jeremy Black on Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Cold War, and international espionage (co-sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute)
  • Barry Lewis on modernist influences in architecture and urban design
  • Linda Greenhouse, Robert Post, and Kenji Yoshino on the use of surveillance in America

New-York Historical’s Bernard and Irene Schwartz Classic Film series will present a selection of films that explore the impact of technology in life and government:

  • Susan Lacy and Antonio Monda discuss the romantic comedy Desk Set, in which Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play colleagues with conflicting views on the computerization of a TV network’s research division
  • Ric Burns will introduce Stanley Kubrick’s satire Dr. Strangelove, touching upon the pervasive anxieties of Cold War America
  • Linda Greenhouse, Robert Post, and Kenji Yoshino will introduce The Lives of Others, a political thriller set in 1980s East Germany in which government surveillance is part of daily life

To celebrate the exhibition’s November 14-15 opening weekend, families are invited to “Innovate with History,” two afternoons during which children can learn Morse Code, try out a punch card computer, and compete in a history quiz against IBM Watson.

About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.

Press Contacts
Ines Aslan
New-York Historical Society
(212) 485-9263

Julia Esposito
Polskin Arts & Communications Counselors
(212) 715-1643

Image Credits

New York World’s Fair IBM Pavilion, 1964. Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives.
Two women wiring the right side of the ENIAC with a new program, ca. 1946. Courtesy US Army. Standing: Marlyn Wescoff, Crouching: Ruth Lichterman.


Monday, June 29, 2015
Creative: Tronvig Group