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Bell’s Fifty Year Old Mistake

April 30, 2014


My Missed Chance For Fame: The 1964 New York World Fair

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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.

bellbuild

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.

bellride

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:

\displaystyle  \sqrt{b - 4ac}

That’s right—they had the formula without the square superscript on the “{b}.” Of course no formula is wrong, but it was clear that they meant the famous formula that is used to solve quadratic equations.

\displaystyle  x = \frac{-b \pm \sqrt{b^{2}-4ac}}{2a}.

They clearly meant to display the discriminant of the quadratic polynomial, but placed {b} for {b^{2}}. 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.

Open Problems

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?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2014 10:40 pm

    Probably you would join to academia after your retirement from the Bell Labs (hopefully from the discrete math group)!

  2. May 1, 2014 8:21 am

    According to Wikipedia:

    Researchers working at Bell Labs are credited with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language, S programming language and the C++ programming language. Seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.

    So I suppose you’re lamenting your own “mistake” at least as much as Bell’s… but do prizes matter this much to you, and fame and money? And has your own career anything to envy to what those guys at Bell did?

    If you want to know, I consider myself as the real inventor of the Walkman, for I had the idea of it about one year before Sony launched their first model. At the time, I had even told about it an electronics geek whom I had met on a holiday trip. However, I never regretted not having developed my own project any further – except maybe today, or I wouldn’t be commenting about it…🙂

    • May 3, 2014 6:47 am

      I see the Walkman Wikipedia article indicates it was first built in 1978 and launched in 1979 – the year when I imagined it myself – in Japan. It was only launched in the rest of the world in 1980 but I guess the idea of a personal stereo was already in the air at the time…

  3. May 1, 2014 10:11 am

    50M visitors? less than the 70M projected? and considered a “failure”? maybe it was the projections/forecasts that were the failure😛

    • rjlipton permalink*
      May 2, 2014 6:29 pm

      Yes 50M is pretty close to 70M. But it did not get the traffic they had hoped for. I could imagine that there is a certain number where you break even, and beyond that is great

  4. May 1, 2014 1:04 pm

    Alternate universe stories are a lot of fun … and a little bit scary.

    Way back when I was taking freshperson physics, I started writing a \psi \phi story where time was a two-dimensional manifold. It was so long ago that I hadn’t read either Borges or Everett–DeWitt yet.

    • May 2, 2014 11:40 am

      As far as the scary part goes, I think it’s the idea that all those roads not taken keep on tugging and weighing on the path we’ve chosen. Ay, there’s the rub that rubs out all the differentials, all the differences we tried to make against the backdrop of the wood-be, luverly, dark, and deep.

  5. May 1, 2014 3:05 pm

    may be the quadratic equation was ax^2+sqrt(b)x+c=0?

  6. Shane permalink
    May 1, 2014 5:43 pm

    Where can I find a larger development of discriminants? I saw mention of this in Gian-Carlo Rota’s retrospective after he passed away. I was curious how this concept generalizes.

  7. May 9, 2014 6:00 pm

    I’d once deeply impressed the manager of a lab where I was working for the summer when he mentioned trying to find the minimum of a curve and the points where it crossed a horizontal axis, and I noticed it was just a quadratic, and the quadratic formula gave everything he wanted. (Sadly for me, he didn’t stay at the company long enough for this to benefit me far past the end of summer.)

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