The Hundred Year Old Computer Below the Grand Central Apple Store

Did you hear the one about the 102 year old computer below the Grand Central Apple Store? Neither had I, but The Gothamist published a story about tours that are being given of the alert system for broken trains in the years before radio communications. According to the Westinghouse tour guide, that system was the "first ever, ever, ever" electronic computer.

Grand Central Electronic Computer

The first ever, ever, ever electronic computer? Maybe.
Screenshot from The Gothamist video

I'll leave it to computer historians to argue the merits of that claim, but it's cool, and according to the same tour guide, "Every year, Apple computer chieftains, ultra super chieftain hoo-has, come down here...they go behind that board, and they literally quietly pay homage to what’s behind there."

Hyperbole may be at play there, but if I was one of the honchos at Apple and I could use that to get access to this system, I'd do it in a heartbeat. The pictures alone are cool.

The way it worked was that in 1913 Westinghouse laid miles of cables in the train tunnels below New York City. If a train broke down, an employee would hop out, yank one of these cables, and a signal would be sent to this secret underground computing bunker to ring a bell. Each bell was labeled with a track number, and then the ticker tape shown below would print out additional information to pinpoint the track.

ticker Tape from Grand Central Electronic Computer

Ye olde ticker tape
Screenshot from The Gothamist video

That's incredible for its day and age, and it was all kept secret. The very existence of the room that houses the system wasn't acknowledge until the 1980s, and The Gothamist said the entry points remain classified even today.

But as amazing as this system was for its day, even more amazing is that it has been preserved all this time. That's partly because it was made obsolete by the advent of radio communications in 1922, just nine years after it was launched. At that time, according to the Westinghouse tour guide, it was preserved for later generations to see.

I'm not sure I buy that particular reasoning, but I love that it was preserved well enough that it could be restored for us to look at it today. Talk about a window into the past!!

The screenshots above came from a video published by The Gothamist. Unfortunately, they don't have an embedding mechanism. On the other hand, you can go see it yourself and read more about this amazing system by simply clicking through!