Exploring the Silicon City: New York City, NYU, and the Dawn of the Digital Age

By Keith Allison
In 1825, painter Samuel Morse was busy in Washington, DC, painting a dramatic portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, when he received a dispatch from a messenger on horseback informing Morse that his wife had taken ill. A day later, another messenger arrived with another message, this one informing Morse of the unfortunate passing of his wife. By the time Morse had packed up and returned home to New York City, his wife had already been buried. It was because of this tragic series of events that Samuel Morse, a one-time faculty member at NYU, determined to create a new, better method of communication that would facilitate the rapid transmission of messages across long distances. The ensuing invention, the telegraph, was demonstrated for the first time in what was then the NYU Main Building on Washington Square East. Calling it and the communication method used for it (Morse code) as the birth of the Internet might be stretching things a little. But it was certainly the birth of telecommunications, upon which the entirety of the Internet was later constructed.

From Morse to microcomputing, for much of the 20th century, New York City, its businesses, and its universities were home to the birth and development of computing and information technology, until shifting focus and economics moved the industry from Silicon Alley to Silicon Valley. Even then, New York remained a key player in the shaping of the digital world. An exhibit currently running at the New York Historical Society, Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York, looks at the rich history of computing in New York City, including the key role played by New York University as home to one of the world’s first supercomputers.

The exhibit uses the ambitious futurism of the 1964 World’s Fair as the launchpad for its exploration of New York’s computing renaissance. It was at that lavish event in Queens that New York company IBM showcased its vision of the coming age inside what was referred to as “the egg,” the massive round pavilion that housed IBM’s presentations. Designed by architect Eero Saarinen, it’s estimated that some 500 people were seated in the pavilion’s “people wall” every 15 minutes. They were then dazzled by a multi-screen video presentation called “THINK,” created by designers Charles and Ray Eames. Computing was nothing new in 1964, at least not for businesses and the government. But this was one of the first times promotion of the technology and its potential had been directed squarely at the public.

An early punch card generator

An early punch card generator

Visitors to the Historical Society enter the Silicon City exhibit through a scaled-down recreation of “the egg,” and from there tour the history of computing in New York through a display of machines and artifacts, including one of Morse’s early telegraph machines, an early telephone invented across the river in New Jersey, vacuum tubes, early computers, punch cards, reel-to-reel machines, and even IBM Selectric typewriters. The role of universities like NYU and Columbia is examined, as well as corporations like IBM, Western Electric, and Bell Laboratories. In addition to the many artifacts on display are posters detailing the contribution of individuals, including people like New Yorker Grace Hopper, the “mother of COBOL” and the “computers” at Los Alamos, New Mexico, dedicated to working on the secretive Manhattan Project. Those computers, it turns out, were a room full of women adept at performing complex mathematical computations very quickly and very accurately.

The Historical Society’s exhibit traces the evolution of computing (which was pioneered by, among others, former Courant Institute faculty member and director Peter Lax) from the wartime effort that created the ENIAC to its integration into business and, finally, entertainment and consumer electronics. NYU’s role in the evolution of the Silicon City includes hosting the UNIVAC computer, at the time one of the most powerful computer in the world. It was overseen by another alumni of Los Alamos, Max Goldstein, one of the founders of the Department of Computer Science at NYU’s Courant Institute as well as one of the creators of the Academic Computing Facility (the forerunner to the current NYU Information Technology department). Working with Max in those early days of computing at NYU was George Sadowsky, who as early as 1958 was working on the foundation of computing in New York as a programmer on NYU’s IBM 704 before graduating to the UNIVAC (read his reflections on the early days of computing at NYU in the Connect article “My Second Computer was a UNIVAC I“).

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It’s not all war and business computing, though. The exhibit also looks at the evolution of computers as elements in the creation of art, a marrying of creativity and technology that was pioneered, among other places, at NYU Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), whose founder Red Burns was dubbed “the Godmother of Silicon Alley.” The exhibit also salutes the birth of video games, which happened in 1958 at Long Island’s Brookhaven Laboratories when researcher William Higinbotham created “Tennis for Two,” the progenitor of Pong.

Although America’s computer technology hub migrated to Silicon Valley during the late 1970s, New York remains a vital center of research and development. During the dot com revolution of the late 1990s, the world’s leading web development and design companies called New York home. Today, some of the biggest players in defining the Internet, including Facebook, Google, and Foursquare, were founded or maintain large offices in New York. Pedestrians walking through Astor Place might notice the glowing blue columns marking the home of IBM’s famous Watson supercomputer. NYU too has remained at the forefront of computing in New York.

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Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York runs through April 17, 2016. Admission to the Historical Society is $20 for adults, $12 for NYU students with ID, or pay as you wish from 6 to 8pm on Fridays. In conjunction with the exhibit, the New York Historical Society and Google are hosting free “Introduction to Coding” drop-in workshops on Friday evenings, 6-8pm.