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The Boom, Bust, And Rebirth Of New York’s Tech Scene

An exhibition at the New York Historical Society chronicles the golden age of computer innovation in New York.

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“Before the 1980s, New York was the physical, social, and economic center for technology,” says Stephen Edidin, curator of Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York, an exhibition at the New York Historical Society, which opens November 13. “The basic message is, don’t forget your past because the history of computing didn’t start with Steve Jobs.”

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With a staggering 300 artifacts on view, Silicon City surveys the key moments in computer history through the lens of East Coast innovation. Though Silicon Valley is undoubtedly today’s tech hub, New York was home to many of history’s most important technological innovations, thanks to a convergence of creative thinkers.

Thomas Edison debuted his light bulb—which would then inform vacuum tubes, a backbone of early electronics—in Menlo Park, New Jersey. New York native Herman Hollerith invented a tabulation machine to improve the Census, which became the basis of computerization. Bell Labs, located in Holmdel, New Jersey, invented the transistor, the foundation of computer chips. And IBM was founded in Endicott, a city in central New York.

Paul Rand, World’s Fair IBM Booklet, 1964.Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives

Outside of hardware and communication technology, New York was pivotal in the court of public opinion. Edidin argues that it was the 1964 World’s Fair that marked change in how people perceived computers thanks in part to IBM’s massive pavilion. “Prior to the fair, computers were thought of as things for business, not life,” he says. “The World’s Fair reversed that. We see images of thousands of people entering the IBM Egg where they were able to interact with and relate to the objects and it was a key moment.”

Over time, the giant supercomputers gave way to smaller devices, which made it easier for individuals to innovate outside of the big companies like IBM and Bell Labs. “When things got portable, they traveled out of the city,” Edidin says.

The exhibition stops at the 1980s—when the focus shifted to the West Coast—before fast forwarding to now where Edidin sees the spirit of New York’s heyday echoed. Today, the city is actively trying to become an innovation hub through initiatives like the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island and naming parts of Chelsea “Silicon Alley.”

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Thomas Watson Jr. with IBM 360, 1964.Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives / Photograph, Mel Koner

“In the last section, we have a 3-D map that shows areas of New York—Downtown, Midtown, Brooklyn—and all the tech companies coming there,” Edidin says. “So again, you’re starting to have a critical mass of people for all the reasons why New York became a hub during the early 19th century. New York is still the artistic center of the world, and you need that critical mass between tech and young artists who want to work with their tech counterparts.”

Edidin hopes that the artifacts in the show help the next generation understand the early history of computing, one that they might not know anything about. For Silicon City, Edidin and his team replicated a “bar” of IBM Selectric typewriters that appeared in the ’64 World’s Fair that museum goers can play with.

“The wife of a colleague is a teacher and she mentioned this to her students,” Edidin says. “They had no idea such a thing ever existed and thought it was cool that a printer and computer could be combined. This exhibition is about sparking intergenerational discussions. All that back and forth may lead to future developments and new ideas. You need to know what came before [to innovate]. “

Silicon City: Computer History in New York runs from November 13, 2015, to April 17, 2016, at the New York Historical Society.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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