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The centerpiece of the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair was a theater known as “the egg,” designed by architect Eero Saarinen. Every 15 minutes, 500 curious visitors settled into the “people wall” that rose into the theater, where they were introduced to the magic of the information machine through Charles and Ray Eames’ multi-screen media experience “THINK.”

New York World’s Fair IBM Pavilion, 1964. Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives.

IBM looked to Madison Avenue designers like Paul Rand to craft its brand identity, and used the 1964 World’s Fair as a public “coming out party” for the Information Age.

Paul Rand, World’s Fair IBM Booklet, 1964. Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives.

Thomas Edison did not invent computers. Yet, all early computers relied on Edison’s work. While refining his light bulb, Edison noticed that electrons in a vacuum flowed from a heated filament to a cooler foil plate. Nearly 30 years later, physicist John Fleming used this “Edison effect” (thermionic emission) to create the vacuum tube. For half a century, vacuum tubes were the voltage regulators and current amplifiers at the heart of radios and other electronic devices, including computers.

Matthew Brady, Professor Thomas Edison and His Phonograph, 1878. Private collection.

Developed by astronomer Wallace Eckert at Columbia University, IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) featured 12,500 vacuum tubes and more than 21,000 relays. The first computer to store data, the SSEC calculated the positions of the moon and planets, and was the last electromechanical calculator ever built. The calculator was installed in IBM’s New York headquarters, where it was operated from 1948 to 1952.

IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator Operator Console, 1948. Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives.

In the wartime era of the 1940s, women dominated the field of programming, which required connecting cables and setting switches by hand. Those who pioneered this painstaking task were called “computers,” just as the word “typewriter” once referred to people who used typewriting machines. Jean Bartik, Frances Bilas and other women worked on the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), developed for the Army during World War II. 

Two women wiring the right side of the ENIAC with a new program, ca. 1946. Courtesy US Army. Standing: Marlyn Wescoff, Crouching: Ruth Lichterman.

In the late 1950s, software was developed to tell flexible and versatile computers (like the IBM System/360) what to do and how to do it. IBM introduced FORTRAN (FORmula TRANslating) in 1957, a computer programming language suited to calculating numbers and formulas, making it ideal for scientists and engineers. COBOL (COmputer Business Oriented Language), designed for commercial data processing by the Department of Defense, debuted in 1959 and is still used today. Its development team included Grace Hopper, called the “mother of COBOL."

Grace Hopper Teaching Cobol, ca. 1960s. Courtesy of Computer History Museum.

IBM’s System/360 introduced a series of compatible, general-purpose machines — flexible computers that could tackle virtually any task simply by changing software. System/360 transformed computing and set the pattern for today’s world of multipurpose machines.

Thomas Watson Jr. with IBM 360, 1964.Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives / Photograph, Mel Koner.

The Telstar 1 was the product of a multi-national agreement including ATT, Bell Telephone Labs, NASA, the United Kingdom’s General Post Office, and France’s National Telegraph and Telephone. The first images were broadcasted via satellite on July 23, 1962, and included the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York Harbor and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Bell Labs Engineers working on Telstar 1, ca 1961. Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent / Bell Labs.

Bell Labs experimented with videophones since the 1920s, debuting the picturephone at the 1964 World’s Fair with a call between First Lady Johnson and engineers at Bell Labs. Cost-prohibitive, with a three-minute call costing $200 in today’s dollars, the service faded away in the 1970s.

Picturephone - Opening Ceremonies - Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson in Washington chats via see-as-you-talk telephone with Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood, Scientist for Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York, June 24 1964. Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent / Bell Labs.

The evolution towards miniaturization laid the foundation for printing transistors on microchips for use inside personal computers. By late 1980s, more than two million components could fit on a fingernail-sized chip, and the IBM Personal Computer became ubiquitous on office desktops across America.

IBM 5150 Personal Computer, 1981. Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives.

Filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek created a series of eight computer-animated projects in collaboration with Kenneth Knowlton at Bell Laboratories in the 1960s. The videos are cathode-ray mosaics, typically brief, non-narrative and abstract.

Stan VanDerBeek, Poemfield # 2, 1966-71. Video still. 16mm film. Realized with Ken Knowlton. Soundtrack: Paul Motian. © Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.

New York, home to both Wall Street and Madison Avenue, took center stage in the transformation of electronics from laboratory tools to consumer products. IBM particularly distinguished itself by combining technical innovation with a focus on branding, design, marketing, and sales. Specimens of IBM’s iconic 1961 Selectric typerwriter—epitomizing its consumer-oriented industrial design under Eliot Noyes—will be available for visitors to try at the exhibition’s typewriter “bar”.

Eliot Noyes, IBM Selectric Typewriter, 1961. Courtesy of IBM Corporation Archives.

The "Tennis for Two" computer game, developed at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in 1958 for visitor’s day, was a forerunner to today's modern video game technologies.
William Higinbotham, Tennis for Two Electronic Game, 1958. Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory.

At the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, moviegoers heard the HAL 9000 computer sing “Daisy Bell” (Bicycle Built for Two). The eerie song was a tribute to Max Mathews, the father of computer music. Writer Arthur C. Clarke had heard Mathews perform the work on an IBM 704 computer while visiting him at Bell Labs in 1961.

Max Mathews and his Radio Batons, © Peter Menzel /

Creative: Tronvig Group