Review: NYC’s Computing History on Display

The Silicon City exhibition at the New York Historical Society presents a golden age for computers in the Big Apple

3 min read
Review: NYC’s Computing History on Display
Das Blinkenlight Machine: The switch- and bulb-festooned control desk of IBM’s SSEC (left) is one of the highlights of the  Silicon City exhibit.
Photo: Randi Klett

Why am I typing out these words in a New York City office building? Because IEEE Spectrum is located in the official global headquarters of the IEEE; when two earlier organizations merged to form the IEEE in 1963, it was written into the founding regulations that HQ would be in NYC. The city was the obvious choice at the time: For decades, New York had been at the heart of global electrical and electronic invention. Edison’s first commercial power plant came to life in downtown Manhattan in 1882. During World War II, Alan Turing and Claude Shannon lunched together at the original Bell Telephone Laboratories location in Greenwich Village. And the surrounding area saw the first modern FM radio transmissions, the first transistor, and the first purely electronic color televisions.

A new exhibition at the New York Historical Society celebrates this technological heritage. Called Silicon City and open until mid-April, the small but well-curated exhibition focuses on the city’s role in the history of computing.

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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