Bell’s Fifty Year Old Mistake
My Missed Chance For Fame: The 1964 New York World Fair
Robert Moses was known as New York’s “Master Builder.” He was hired to run the 1964 New York Fair, for many reasons: he knew how to raise money, knew how to create huge infrastructure projects, he knew how to think big. He also knew how to fail. Unfortunately the fair failed to get the 70 million projected visitors and was considered a failure.
Today I want to talk about my recollection of the New York World’s Fair of 1964, failure or not.
The fair opened almost exactly fifty years ago, back when I was still in high school. I visited it with my parents and my sister. Ken also visited it with his family shortly before he turned 5—it and the Staten Island Ferry are among his earliest retained memories. The fair left a lasting impression on me, for a strange reason, which I would like to share with you.
Let’s Go For a Ride
The Bell Phone Company had an exhibition building, the Bell System Pavilion, at the fair, as did other huge companies.
One of its main attractions was a ten-minute ride, called “From Drumbeat to Telstar.” You got in a small moving armchair for one person, and it then went through a tunnel. Sort of like a tunnel of “love” except that this was a tunnel of technology. The car turned toward a diorama and lots of things were displayed there for your amusement. Bell proudly called it the “1,000” chair ride: the display was 104 feet long and you saw projected images as well as music and narration. It was not the coolest ride in the world, was pretty tame, not very fast, but for 1964 it was fun.
I went on the ride with my family. At the end of the ride I casually said to my mom and dad—my sister was definitely not listening—there is “bug” in their ride. My parents said, what? I repeated that the Bell exhibit had a mistake on their wall. I was almost sure. They replied, how did I know? And what was the problem? I explained that I was pretty sure. So to be certain we got back in line, which was pretty short, and took the ride again.
There on the wall was the mistake. The wall had all sorts of scientific stuff, which I do not recall at all, it was almost fifty years ago. But one remains crystal-clear. The wall had the formula:
That’s right—they had the formula without the square superscript on the “.” Of course no formula is wrong, but it was clear that they meant the famous formula that is used to solve quadratic equations.
They clearly meant to display the discriminant of the quadratic polynomial, but placed for . Oops.
The correct formula has been known probably for over four thousand years—see here. Somehow the people at the Bell Phone Company had missed this typo. The researchers all knew this formula, but in getting it onto the wall it had been changed into the incorrect formula.
My Chance Slips Away
My dad and mom were impressed, well a bit. Both said that we should tell someone about the “mistake.” But who? Today we would e-mail someone, or look up on the web to see who to let know. We left the fair with a plan that I should write a note to Bell. But I never did.
A total of 51,607,307 people visited the fair. Probably a large fraction took the Bell ride. How many noticed the error on the wall? How many Bell executives took that ride when it was first opened and missed the error? Who knows.
I have sometimes wondered what would have happen if I did write to Bell Labs. Would they have cared at all? Would they have simply fixed the wall’s error. Or would I have been rewarded in some way? Perhaps I would have been invited to visit them in New Jersey. Would my whole life had been different? Who knows?