Before there was Silicon Valley, there was New York. Arguably the first high-tech research lab in America, Thomas Edison’s shop was half an hour’s train ride away, in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Less than five years after he patented his incandescent lightbulb, he had dynamos spinning and lights burning on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, just in time for the 1882 Christmas-shopping season. Within a generation, Bell Laboratories was up and running at West and Bethune, and eventually expanded to a New Jersey campus where the silicon age, in the form of the transistor, was born. A couple of hours upstate, a clock company called the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company was transforming itself, under an executive named Thomas Watson, into International Business Machines, and would eventually move its headquarters to Westchester and start building computers in (among many other places) Bedford-Stuyvesant. And at both the 1939 and especially 1964 World’s Fairs in Flushing Meadows, the world got to see what IBM and Bell, and many companies, were pushing out into the world.
The case for New York as the original high-tech center is expertly made in the New-York Historical Society’s new show, “Silicon City,” which opens Friday, November 13. Its showiest installation is probably a re-creation of the IBM pavilion from the 1964 fair, which was designed by the great architect Eero Saarinen and fitted out by Charles and Ray Eames. The artifacts themselves, though, have their own stories to tell.
Tennis for Two: The World’s First Video Game
William Higinbotham was a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, and in 1958 he rigged up — mostly to entertain visitors to his lab and put a friendly, interactive face on his scientific work — an analog computer to an oscilloscope screen and two hand-built controllers. Tennis for Two, he called it, and at an open house people lined up to try it. It was, pretty nearly, proto-Pong. (It was such a trifle that he didn’t bother to patent it.) There are arguments for other machines’ “first video game” primacy, including one that played tic-tac-toe, but Tennis for Two had motion and was played by people for fun, and the general consensus today is that it’s the first milepost on the road to Minecraft. At the N-YHS, curators have had the game reproduced, and museumgoers will be allowed to play.
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Picturephones: Like FaceTime, Long Before It Was Ready for Prime Time
At the 1964 World’s Fair, AT&T introduced the Picturephone, whereby callers could see each other, sci-fi-style, as they spoke. Inventors had been trying to stuff video down a phone line for decades, and it was a sensation at the fair. It was also a little bit of a ruse, because the phone system lacked the bandwidth to handle more than a few calls at a time; it was also terribly expensive to subscribers, and almost nobody signed up for the service. The setup on view at the N-YHS dates to 1969, when the system was reintroduced, and promptly tanked again. AT&T tried once more, in the 1990s, with the VideoPhone 2500; nobody bought that either, again owing mostly to the expense. Only with the arrival of computers with cheap, high-quality cameras installed did the service become affordable, and Skype and FaceTime have finally made it even harder for you to leave your desk.
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Core Memory: The Most Beautiful Circuits Ever?
This is not an art object but a bank of IBM’s ferrite core memory, used in computers of the 1950s and 1960s. The grid is made of fine copper wires, and the little beads at the intersections are tiny ring-shaped magnets. Signals sent through the wires flip the magnets from positive to negative, allowing the machine to record ones and zeroes. The good part about core memory: It’s super-durable. (Its manufacture was also a rare corner of the high-tech industry that employed lots of women, because it fell to people who could crochet and knit.) The bad part: Core memory is huge. This board is about the size of a sheet of letter paper, and holds 1,000 bytes — meaning you’d need 64 million of these to equal the amount of storage in an iPhone 6. It might be enough to hold this paragraph of text, if you chose a very simple font.
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Telstar 1: Coast-to-Coast TV
Before Telstar was launched into orbit in 1962, a transatlantic TV broadcast was better known as “a reel of film, placed on a 707 and shipped from New York to London.” Built by AT&T/Bell Labs, Telstar 1 was a globe about a yard across, studded with antennas and orbiting 3,600 miles up. A couple of backup units were built and remain on Earth, and the New-York Historical Society has restored one (with a little help from Kickstarter) for display here. The flown satellite also still exists: Although its electronics were fried into inactivity long ago, it continues to orbit the Earth.
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IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator: It Won’t Fit in Your Pocket
This oddly hilarious-looking device was a dedicated, special-purpose calculator. The first computer to have its own memory, it was a hybrid creature, incorporating elements from the final generation of mechanical computers (in which linkages of springs and sprockets did the computing) and the first generation of electronic ones (1,200 vacuum tubes). Installed in IBM’s headquarters in New York, it was the creation of an astronomer named Wallace Eckert at Columbia University, and calculated the positions of the moon and planets. Built in 1948, retired in 1952, it’s been restored for the exhibition, and that blinky panel of lights, straight off a ‘50s flying-saucer set, will be illuminated once again.