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

Apple Store’s Gift to Grand Central Terminal: Free Wi-Fi

You may not have noticed, but the new Apple Store which opened in
Grand Central Terminal Friday brought with it an early holiday
gift for harried New York commuters: Free Wi-Fi.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has offered free Wi-Fi in the historic venue since 2008, but only in the small ticketed-passengers-only Station Master’s Office waiting area on the station’s west side.

The vast Main Concourse, with its soaring, 125-foot-high ceiling, iconic four-faced clock and landmark circular information booth, is well beyond the reach of the MTA’s Wi-Fi access point.

Fortunately the new Apple Store at Grand Central Terminal offers free Wi-Fi which freely spills out of the store’s base on the East Balcony, across the vast Main Concourse and into many of the other areas of the station’s main level.

When tested with a new LG Nitro HD Android 2.3 smartphone for AT&T, the Apple Store’s Wi-Fi signal was strong throughout the Main Concourse and was even reachable under archways below the West Balcony. The signal didn’t disappear until just before the west side escalators to the lower level.

The free Wi-Fi is good news for delayed commuters with iPods, Wi-Fi-only Kindles, iPads and other tablets and handheld devices and for those with limited data plans for their cell phones. It’s also good news for users of smartphone videoconferencing apps that run only over Wi-Fi, not over their carriers’ data networks.

So how do you connect? Just turn on your device’s Wi-Fi adapter, search for the access point named “Apple Store,” and connect. The open network doesn’t even require a sign-in; just connect and go. But a word to the wise: Since this Wi-Fi connection offers no security, save your online banking for a more secure Internet link at home or work.

Text, video and photo Copyright 2011, Robert S. Anthony, Stadium Circle Features