A Night at the Museum: Timeless Cool Tech at MoMA

Never underestimate the geek value of a night at the museum, specifically New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

On a recent Friday afternoon (admission is free 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays) I found myself on the third floor where MoMA houses a surprisingly eclectic and entertaining collection of old and new technology in its Architecture and Design areas.

While the Bell-47D1 helicopter in the lobby and the collection of vintage vacuum tubes were expected, the displays also include products you may have used or may be in your home right now.

The FPR2 Human Powered Radio and Freeplay Human Powered Torch from Freeplay Energy Ltd. would have come in handy during any of New York’s three major blackouts. Both units can be charged with elbow grease or via built-in solar panels. The London-based company still makes hand-crank-powered devices but they’re smaller and sleeker than these translucent 1998-vintage consumer products.

The IBM ThinkPad 701 notebook, which debuted in 1995, is a classic example of cool technology which went white hot and ice cold almost overnight. How do you fit a full-size keyboard into a compact laptop? Create a split keyboard which expands when you open the unit’s lid and collapses when you close it.

The butterfly keyboard, officially called the TrackWrite, allowed the unit’s 9.7-inch-wide case to accommodate a keyboard that could fold out to 11.5 inches wide. As laptops grew larger and more affordable, the need for such keyboard magic disappeared and the ThinkPad 701 ended up as the only ThinkPad made with the nifty folding keyboard.

Long before frills such as wireless mice, studio-quality audio or (gasp!) electronic displays came to personal computing, Olivetti’s Logos 80 Programmable Calculator provided a reasonable calculating option for those graduating from slide rules or four-function pocket calculators.

It’s not surprising when art makes its way from a museum for temporary display in the New York’s subway system, but it’s rare when things go the other way. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the folks who run New York’s subways, is experimenting with the Help Point Intercom, a highly visible customer assistance and emergency communicator.

Many stations have customer communication boxes, but they’re yellow and much smaller and sometimes hard to find. The Help Points are much larger, always illuminated and are uniquely coded so subway personnel can tell which unit was used to call in an emergency and where to send assistance.

In a pilot program, some units have been installed at the 23rd St. and Brooklyn Bridge stations on the Lexington Ave. line. Apparently the sleek, but functional design earned the Help Point a spot in MoMA even before it merited widespread adoption in the subway system.

The moral of this story: Cool design is timeless. Only time will tell if the electric toothbrush you used this morning will make it to MoMA’s third floor next year.

Text and video Copyright 2012 Robert S. Anthony, Stadium Circle Features

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