Annals of Computing:
“Silicon City” exhibition at the New York Historical Society questions origins of the digital era
By Bika Rebek
December 3, 2015
Originally published on The Architects Newspaper | archpaper.com
Radical inventions that lead to profound societal transformations tend to be accompanied by founding myths and overlapping claims for authorship. Once a certain founding story has been widely accepted, research will periodically uncover it as being false, and the evidence for an alternate narrative will emerge.
Trying to change accepted founding myths is notoriously difficult: Gutenberg built his printing press after centuries of development in printmaking across the world, but his name is strongly tied to the advent of the printing revolution. Importantly, the significance of a figure like Gutenberg and the related story becomes a point of local pride.
The founding myth of computing is a multifaceted story still in the process of being created.Since the invention of computing simultaneously challenged notions of collaboration and the concept of individual authorship, tracing the genesis of this technology is particularly demanding. Silicon City: Computer History Made in New—an exhibition that opened recently at the New York Historical Society—finds the roots of the digital era in the New York region.
The curvilinear exhibition design is anchored by three bulbous spaces housing thematic multi-screen installations. The first spheroid is a mini- recreation of the egg shaped IBM pavilion at the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair. The original Information Machine designed by Eero Saarinen allowed 400 guests to view a show directed by Charles and Ray Eames—a spectacle on twenty-two screens of various shapes and sizes.
A second cavern, reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, is housing a video reel showing pioneering collaborations between artists and engineers in the 1960s. These include 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, a series of large scale performatic live events at the Armory.
Engineers worked with artists from various disciplines—including Robert Rauschenberg, Steve Paxton and John Cage—to create custom technical equipment including responsive systems and participatory apparatuses. These early experiments in digital art were certainly enabled by a convergence of artistic and technological talent only possible in New York.
Meandering between these video installations, the core of the exhibition is tracing local achievements of the history of computing from the 1800s to the 1980s, showcasing a number of stunningly beautiful technological artifacts. Highlights include a IBM SSEC console, a large table with hundreds of regularly spaced knobs originally located in the IBM headquarters on Madison Avenue.
Another fascinating device is a matrix of jacks connected by plug-in cords, programmed by making physical connections. These objects are accompanied by image documentation, in some instances highlighting the undervalued role of female engineers.
Images of exceptional figures like Grace Hopper—a native New Yorker—teaching the coding language COBOL she helped to develop at IBM, reinstate the importance of women in the early development of computers.
A section on identity branding and design highlights the work of Paul Rand and Eliot Noyles at IBM and a gallery on graphics, music and games presents a medley of various gaming consoles and cultural artifacts.
A third immersive capsule ends the show with a multimedia showcase highlighting current tech companies and startups in New York, providing a uplifting outlook reinstating New York as a city thriving with digital technologies.
Focussing on the development of technology from a local perspective produces some astonishing omissions—the military, a driving financial and ideological force behind the development of computers is barely mentioned.
Nevertheless, filled with fascinating objects, the show presents one facet of a transformative global invention. Mythicizing the development of early computing as a New York story, it delivers a rich kaleidoscope of locally based innovation.