Photos From the Early Days of New York’s Tech Scene
Silicon Valley may be the center of the tech universe, but an exhibition at the New York Historical Society makes a compelling argument that New York played an equally vital role in starting the digital revolution.
Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York explores the Big Apple’s early tech industry, and how it ushered in the information age. The exhibition, sponsored in part by several tech companies, features 300 photos and artifacts, including Edison light bulbs and a Telstar satellite, created in and around New York. The city was home to tech giants like Samuel F.B. Morse and frequented by Alexander Graham Bell, while Edison lived across the river in New Jersey. The lightbulb, the dial recorder, and the electric tabulating machine were among the things invented by New Yorkers, laying the foundation for the technological revolution.
“Up until the ’80s, it really was all about New York,” says curator Stephen Ediden.
The Stanford Industrial Park, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, the Homebrew Computer Club, and Xerox PARC, to name a few, might disagree with that assessment. But that doesn’t mean New York didn’t play a vital role in the growth of America’s tech sector. Given its role in everything else, from art to finance, it was almost inevitable. “It was a finite area that people crossed and interrelated with each other all the time,” Ediden says. “So for economics, business, art—all these things that you really need a core group of creative people to function—were all in New York from the early 19th century. And it was the development of that that led to major businesses like IBM and AT&T’s Bell Labs.”
IBM and Bell Labs were to New York as Apple and Google are to Silicon Valley. IBM’s Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University created the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator. It was the first computer to ever store data, and scientists used it to calculate the positions of the moon and planets. Bell Labs worked with NASA to develop Telstar 1, the first communications satellite. On July 23, 1962, it broadcast the first satellite images of the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge.
The two companies had what the historical society dubs a “coming out party” at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. IBM introduced a computer that could pull up a news story for any date. Bell Labs dazzled crowds with a “picturephone” that was the FaceTime of its day. “With the 1964 World Fair, IBM and others really made an attempt to make these machines available to the general public and make them see how these worked within their everyday lives,” Ediden says.
Beyond technology, IBM and Bell Labs also fostered the team-oriented culture Silicon Valley is known for. IBM believed in creating spaces where employees could collaborate on ideas, and Bell Labs had a research wing where scientists could work on pet projects like the transistor radio. “When you go into Google, they have those photographs of everyone hanging out, playing games and eating great food,” Edinen says. “The same idea really took place and was created in New York.”
These days, Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley are two sides of the same coin. Many tech companies have offices in California and New York, and the Big Apple is matching the Bay Area in attracting entrepreneurs and innovators. Edinen hopes people take a moment to consider the city’s rich technological past. “Innovation is crucial,” he says, “but you can’t really innovate unless you know [its] history.”
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