From telephone operators to card catalogs, pneumatic tubes to drafting tables, exhibition highlights New York’s early innovations and ingenuity
A new exhibition at Museum of the City of New York takes visitors on a visit to predigital New York, where analog innovations, professions, and industries fueled the city’s growth and status. On view from May 20, 2022-December 31, 2022, Analog City: New York B.C. (Before Computers) presents more than 100 photographs and once-pioneering objects, from rotary phones to pneumatic tubes, offering an opportunity for visitors to reflect on the city’s history of progress and interact with many of the inventions that led the way for contemporary networks and industries.
“New York has always been a city on the cutting edge, and this exhibition allows us to marvel at both how advanced these analog tools were in their time, and how far we’ve now progressed in the Internet era,” said Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director and President of the Museum of the City of New York. “Whether you remember speaking with a telephone operator, or you’re too young to know the origin of ‘hang up the phone,’ Analog City offers a fascinating dive into New York’s leading industries and the inventions that made them run.”
New York thrived as a center of finance, news, research, and real estate in an era before personal computers and the internet. Historical artifacts, images, audio, video, and hands-on interactives will immerse visitors in the sights and sounds of the pre-digital city. Analog City will take a special look at New York City institutions such as The New York Times, the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library, and the New York Stock Exchange, among many others, to examine how the analog systems born between the 1870s and the 1970s changed these institutions, and how they served and impacted New Yorkers across the five boroughs.
Visitors will be able to try typewriters, rotary phones, card catalogs, and other building blocks of the analog system, while learning how these innovations paved the way for industries including news and media, research and information-sharing, finance and banking, and building and infrastructure.
Analog City is divided into four sections, each highlighting a key industry and aspect of life before computers:
• Hot off the Presses showcases the significant role newspapers, in particular The New York Times, played in covering the globe with up to the minute news – in an era before email and digital communications. While the fastest-growing newspapers invested in staffing desks worldwide to maintain on-the-ground connections across every corner of the globe, local news sources in immigrant communities sparked an unprecedented global information-sharing network. This section will also include a giant linotype and teletype machine, showcasing the process of how individual news stories became the printed newspaper each day.
• A Democracy of Information delves into the city’s public library system, which utilized a full array of communication tools, including card catalogs, pneumatic tubes, telephones, and a fleet of trained staff members and librarians. NYC’s mammoth library networks fed the creative engine of the city and its voracious hunger for literacy and learning in the 20th century. In an era when the city was growing and diversifying at a record rate – and technological advancements brought an onslaught of new visual and printed material for researchers and those who sought knowledge and literacy – the city’s networks of libraries across the five boroughs struggled to keep pace with demand and the influx of materials to be maintained and accessed.
• Trading at the Speed of Paper dives into New York’s financial center, the New York Stock Exchange, and how it operated before Bloomberg terminals and digital trading. While New York has long been the financial center of the United States, in the 20th century the New York Stock Exchange grappled with ever-increasing volumes and the need for real-time information. As the engine of the market sped up in the analog age, communications technologies strained under the demand for speed and the sheer amount of trading in the heart of New York’s financial district – a center of commerce that was increasingly tied to a global network.
• Scaling the City examines how New York’s skyscrapers and iconic infrastructure were built with pencils, erasers, and drafting tables. As industry boomed, so too did the demand for space – creating a growing industry of modernizing architectural firms that would transform the city’s skyline without the aid of computer modeling or calculations. This era of skyscrapers and infrastructural investment transformed the density and verticality of New York City.
Analog City is organized by curator Lilly Tuttle and designed by Abbott Miller of Pentagram.
RELATED PROGRAMS AND EVENTS
A stimulating roster of film screenings, lectures, and panel discussions will accompany the exhibition. The Museum will also offer activities for children, teachers, and families to introduce them to life in the Analog City.
Analog City is made possible in part by Elizabeth R. Miller and James G. Dinan, the Achelis and Bodman Foundation, and the Lily Auchincloss Foundation.
James W. Cortada
Jennifer S. Light
Kate J. Ascher
Zeynep Çelik Alexander
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