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  • Fuhgedaboudit—Technology in the Outer Boroughs of New York
  • Michael N. Geselowitz (bio)

By North American colonial times, New York City was already an important population and trading center, and it served as the temporary capitol of the new United States beginning in 1785. By 1835, it had over-taken Philadelphia as the most populous American city. Despite its ups and downs, New York City remains the most populous city in the US and in the top 15 worldwide (its metropolitan area is third after Tokyo and Moscow). It is a—if not the—financial capital of the world and still exerts strong cultural influence. It therefore has naturally played a major role in the history of technology.

Begin with Manhattan

When people think of New York, however, they think of Manhattan, and indeed, throughout most of its history, New York was Manhattan Island. Not surprisingly then, many historical technological events belong to Manhattan, including the following:

  • • the development of important calculation devices by Spanish immigrant Ramon Verea in the 1870s;

  • • Edison's Pearl Street station, the first central-station electric power plant, in 1882 (see Figure 1);

  • • the formation of the Computing-Tabulating-Record Company (later IBM) in 1911, the establishment of its laboratory in 1914, and all of the subsequent computer work there; and

  • • the founding of Bell Labs in 1925 (as the successor to the Western Electric Engineering Department) and its important computer-related inventions (prior to its move to New Jersey) such as the negative feedback amplifier of Harold Black in 1927, the pioneering quartz clock work in the same year by Warren Marrison, the broadband coaxial cable of Lloyd Espenschied and Herman Affel in 1929, and the electromechanical calculator work done by George Stibitz in the 1930s.

On 21 January 1898, however, New York City became more than Manhattan. The surrounding communities of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island—already prosperous and growing communities on their own—were brought under the New York umbrella and merged into the city. Interestingly, these four "Outer Boroughs" as they came to be known, can all be visited in one trip without setting foot in Manhattan by engineering marvels—of civil engineering origin! From the Bronx in the north, the Triborough Bridge (really a complex of three bridges) can take one to Queens where one can get on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that ends at the entrance to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the southwest tip of Brooklyn.

The Verrazano Bridge, which was the longest suspension bridge in the world from its opening in 1964 until 1981, then takes the traveler to Staten Island, the only stand-alone borough besides Manhattan (Queens and Brooklyn are on Long Island with other political entities, and the Bronx is connected to the mainland). This trip is worthwhile not just because of the infrastructure or the scenery, but also because each of the four outer boroughs contains on its own—without help from Manhattan—at least one site of interest to Annals Local Area Networker.

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Figure 1.

Edison's Pearl Street Station, the first central-station electric power plant. "The Regulator" is the device that controlled the power plant's voltage output to make sure it stayed within a certain range. (Courtesy of IEEE History Center)

[End Page 74]

On to Staten Island

To begin the tour chronologically, and therefore in the south, the telecommunication revolution can be said to have begun on Staten Island even before Manhattan Island. In 1850, Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant by way of Cuba, settled in the Clifton section of Staten Island. An engineer by training who had developed a method of using electric shocks to treat illness, he was seeking an appropriate location for a home, which could also have a connected laboratory, to pursue invention as a career. Although he also established a candle factory to support his family, he continued his research. It was here in 1856 that he produced a voice communication apparatus that many (including, by non-binding resolution, the US Congress) consider to be the first telephone. Interestingly, his prominence in the Italian-American community led him to have as a house guest...


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