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'Silicon City' Traces New York City's Roots as Tech Hub

By Emily Frost | November 11, 2015 3:32pm
 "Silicon City" explores the history of the birth of computers in New York City. 
"Silicon City" Exhibit Opening
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Imagine a time when computers were considered the realm of private businesses, the government and the military, not constantly clutched in your hand or nestled in your pocket.

That's what a new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society asks us to do, taking us back in time not to Northern California, but to New York City.

"Silicon City," which opens Saturday, is about celebrating "the early glory and the present excitement of New York as a technology powerhouse," said Louise Mirrer, president of the museum. 

To tell the story, the exhibit created a replica of IBM's pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where the public was introduced to computers. 

At the fair, "people began to see what everyday life was like with computing," and they were full of excitement, said Stephen Edidin, chief curator of the exhibit. 

While it dips back briefly to the 1800s to chart the course of early inventions like the telegraph and light bulb, "Silicon City" mostly focuses on the second half of the 20th century and the radical transformation of computers. 

With IBM based in New York City, developments that changed the computer from a massive 25 by 40 foot object into a small personal computer happened here, the exhibit illustrates. 

"Much of this story is IBM's story," said Edidin. 

The exhibit has more than 300 objects and images on display, from large computers that used plugs and couldn't store data to transistor radios to what many consider the first computer game, created by a bored physicist working on Long Island.

Seeing the large computers is akin to "going into St. Peter's for the first time and you have this shrinking feeling," said Edidin. 

The culmination of this walk through the past is a graphic showing how many tech companies are currently based in the city, in Brooklyn, lower Manhattan and Midtown. 

The historical society hopes that multiple generations will come to the exhibit together and that it will open up discussions about how the past informs the future, said Edidin. 

"Silicon City" runs from Nov. 13 to April 17, 2016.

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