Go Back to the Future of Tech with 'Silicon City'

While some tweens are hardwired to think in zeros and ones and are ready for advanced instruction in computer science, others are leery of the whole thing. I have one of each.

Luckily, both my enthusiastic coder and my reluctant techie found something to enjoy at the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York, on view through April 17 where kids can see early computers, typewriters, phones and even try out classic video games like Space Invaders. Read on for what to expect from this uptown STEM art exhibit where drop-in coding classes are also on tap.

Silicon City, best for ages 5 and older, demonstrates the role NYC played in birthing the technology that most kids, and many adults, take for granted.

To that end, it goes back to the very beginning, and a recreation of the IBM Pavilion at the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in Queens. Included are vintage posters, and the same movie—Think—that millions of visitors viewed more than 50 years ago.

In the hardware section, you'll find an electric Morse telegraph from the 1840s, an early Edison lightbulb and a punch card machine from the 1890s. My 12-year-old was shocked to learn that "computers" predated the 20th century and couldn’t get over how long the calculations must have taken if you were forced to feed the machine one punch card at a time.

RELATED: Coding for Kids: Free Websites That Teach Programming

Listen to a historical message about the first days of computers. Photo by the author.

As a child of the 21st century, my 9-year-old wasn’t surprised she could pick up a facsimile of a rotary phone and hear a recording of a historic conversation. What puzzled her more was why she had to put her finger in the numbers to make it work.

Nearby, a 1940s-era photo of women physically plugging cables into a wall-sized, Army Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), allowed me to advise my daughter that computer programming once was considered women’s work. In fact, the workers themselves were called “calculators.”

Meanwhile, my son, who knows programming solely through a keyboard, could not stop staring at an apparent tangled display of wires, wondering, “how did they make sense of all this?”

Two women wiring the right side of the ENIAC with a new program, ca. 1948. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.

RELATED: 10 Robotics Camps and Classes for NYC Kids

At least, when we passed the writing-desk-sized Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator with its display of lights going on and off, my children had a vague frame of reference. “It’s like Star Trek!”

However, the most popular section was the more contemporary one. Pairs of kids waited in line to try a 1961 video game for two that looked like a tennis iteration of Pong, which made it to home-console use decades later. There was also a classic and working (no quarters required) Space Invaders booth from 1978, and, most awe-inspiring of all, an electric typewriter.

Prepare for a barrage of questions, including:

  • How do you put the paper in?
  • Where’s the Enter key?
  • What do you do if you make a mistake?

Space Invaders never gets old. Photo by the author.

For more artistic kids, a video explains the birth of computer-animation (featuring an interview with a key Pixar player), and the role computers played in creating modern art and music.

If your goal is to get kids excited about programming, drop by its Friday night FREE Introduction to Coding workshops provided by Google. These workshops run through the end of February and are for kids 8 and older. They are conveniently held from 6 -8pm during the Historical Society’s pay-what-you-wish hours.

Good To Know Before You Go: In addition to Silicon City, the museum currently has a display of vintage toy trains, and, through February 21, a Superheroes in Gotham exhibit. So you might want to make a whole afternoon of it. Plus, don’t forget its attached Children’s History Museum.

Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York is on view through April 17 at the New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets. Tickets are $20 for adults, $6 children ages 5-13. Fridays from 6 to 8 pm are pay-what-you-wish.

Top image: A two-person video game older than Pong! Photo by the author.

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