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How The Digital Revolution Was Made In New York

20 October 2015, 9:00 am EDT By Laura Rosenfeld Tech Times
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Most people associate the digital revolution with the West Coast, and it's easy to see why. Many of today's biggest tech companies, from Apple to Microsoft to Google, all got their start out West. However, none of them would exist today without the groundwork laid decades before in New York.

"All these kinds of inventions and businesses are based on a lot of things coming together in one place, and New York was a place where all these things had already come together in terms of finances, commerce, culture, communications and just physically," the New-York Historical Society's chief curator Stephen Edidin told Tech Times. "This was an island where people sort of met each other, integrated or cross-pollinated their ideas just by being in this physical locale."

The New-York Historical Society will explore the Big Apple's place in the development of computers and today's tech titans in an upcoming exhibition titled "Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York" opening Nov. 13 and running through April 17, 2016. With more than 180 artifacts and hands-on displays, the exhibition chronicles the computer-related achievements in the New York region from the late 1800s through the 1980s and where the city stands in the industry today.

But before this timeline guides visitors through the exhibition, they're first transported back to the latter half of the 20th century to the 1964 New York World's Fair. The New-York Historical Society's exhibition will recreate the egg-shaped IBM pavilion designed by Eero Saarinen and feature parts of the multimedia experience "Think" by Charles and Ray Eames that played to World's Fair visitors.

"[This] was sort of the period in which computers were presented to the public at large as something that would be part of their lives personally, and it would be important to them in everything they did," Edidin said. "So this is like the peak in which the process goes from sort of just being business oriented or science oriented to a public facility."

The New-York Historical Society decided to begin the exhibition with the World's Fair because it was such a seminal moment in computer history, according to Edidin. Not only was it one of the first times people could visualize the capabilities of computers in their everyday lives, but it was also one of the only ways for people to learn about new technology of the day in general.

"Today, you know, technologies are developed quickly and get publicity through the web, essentially, very quickly. That didn't happen in the past," Edidin said. "So this, the World's Fair, was actually a web-based meeting of people to see these new things. It really functioned that way, so it was kind of exciting to see that as a physical thing."

The rest of the exhibition is organized chronologically, starting off with the 19th-century inventions that made the development of the computer possible, such as Samuel Morse's electric telegraph, Thomas Edison's early lightbulbs and Herman Hollerith's punched card machine, which was used in the early days of corporate accounting and by the U.S. Social Security Administration. The exhibition will then move on to highlight the development of the global communications network, in which the New York-based companies AT&T and Bell Laboratories played a major role. This part of the exhibition will feature one of Edidin's favorite items on display: an original Telstar 1 satellite hanging from the gallery's ceiling that was used to relay the world's first transatlantic television signal in 1962.

"I think that's great because that's global communications. That's everything nowadays," Edidin said.

However, "Silicon City" isn't just about hardware; it's also about the impact computing had on other areas of American culture, such as art, advertising, music and video games. Visitors will be able to watch 1960s video art from the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Lillian Schwartz and Stan VanDerBeek projected inside a geodesic dome, tap the keys of IBM's Selectric typewriter and play a Space Invaders game in its original cabinet from 1978.

With the rise of the personal computer in the early 1980s, the West quickly became the headquarters for the American computer industry. However, New York has slowly started to rise as a tech hub in the country once again, a topic that the final part of the exhibition explores. Startups are now setting up shop in all five boroughs, major tech companies like Google have New York outposts, and the future completion of the Cornell Tech campus, which is scheduled to open in 2017, could bring computing back to the city that never sleeps in a major way, Edidin said.

"What they're reacting to is the same idea that initially made New York such a powerful community. It's a sort of finite space in which people tend to interact just because they have to, and so you have these constant meetings taking place physically as well as virtually in a way that you can't have in sort of the wide-open spaces of California, let's say," Edidin said. "So that is the point here, that there was a constant going to a peak and a bit of an ebb and a flow, and now we're reaching sort of critical mass again."

It's up to you, New York.

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