OLEAN - You can't go far anymore without being on camera.
Surveillance cameras dot the ceiling of Wal-Mart and peek out from the doorways of banks and bakeries. Large cities post cameras at intersections to capture criminals on tape.
This everyone knows. What they don't know is Olean's place in ushering in Americas age of surveillance.
In September of 1968, Olean was the first city in the country to install video cameras along its main business street in an effort to fight crime. The use of closed-circuit TV cameras piping images into the Olean Police Department propelled Olean to the forefront of crime-fighting technology.
Within a year of the cameras being installed on North Union Street, more than 160 police chiefs from around the country visited Olean to inspect the system as well as a colonel from the U.S. Army Weapons Division; Dr. Donald E.J. MacNamara, a professor of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; representatives of the Israeli Defense Force; and Maj. Gen. Somjai Jenyavanija, head of the national police force of Thailand.
Mike Arnold is a retired communications industry executive now living in California. In 1967 he was the president of Allband Cablevision Co. bringing then-new cable television technology to the city of Olean. His company installed the cameras on North Union Street in the downtown business district to look for crime.
The system gained national headlines for Olean with stories appearing in the New York Times as well as Parade magazine.
Mr. Arnold said the level of interest in the system took him buy surprise - he was just trying to help downtown merchants protect their stores.
"I mean, we had people coming from Israel and Thailand to see how the system worked," he said chuckling. "The New York Times came here twice. They thought people would rise up and scream about it because of what they called 'Big Brother syndrome.' But the reporter was here for two weeks and he couldn't find anyone who was against it."
Mr. Arnold said it all started innocently enough. He was running the cable television system in Olean at the time.
During an Olean Exchange Club meeting 41 years ago, he listened with interest as the Olean SEARS store manager complained the company had ordered him to buy a guard dog for the store that he would have to care for. SEARS in Olean had recently been broken into and company officials in Chicago didn't want to be ripped off again.
Mr. Arnold suggested putting cameras on utility poles downtown as a deterrent to crime instead. The idea was a hit with the other business owners at the meeting, but then Mr. Arnold began wondering what it would cost. In the end it took more than ,1.4 million over two years in 1968 dollars to design, install and run the system.
Mr. Arnold said it would never have happened without the OK of Alfred Schwab, owner of Allband's parent company in New York City, the Television Communication Corp. of America. Mr. Arnold said when he discussed his idea with Mr. Schwab, he was completely in favor.
"When I told him what we wanted to do, Al Schwab backed us 100 percent. He told us to make it work no matter what the cost." Mr. Arnold said. "All the funds for this came from the company. It was a different era back then."
Mr. Arnold worked with company engineers to build the cameras and design the system. It was among the first efforts outside of the military to build a durable, all-weather video camera system.
The cameras ran 24 hours a day, feeding images into a bank of televisions at the Olean Police Department. The cameras panned left and right on a timer, overlapping their coverage of the street.
"We had eight cameras, all with overlapping fields of view," Mr. Arnold said. "At the time, New York City had one camera and it was stationary; it couldn't pan. In reality, Olean is the birthplace of television surveillance in the country."
Mr. Arnold said the camera system did suppress crime on North Union Street.
"During the time the cameras were up, there were no break-ins on North Union Street," he said. "All the crime moved to West State."
The cameras were up and running for 18 months on North Union Street. The system died with the demise of Allband's cable franchise in Olean. The system had 900 customers in Olean, operating from 1964 until the early 1970s.
"It was a three-channel system to start out with," Mr. Arnold said. "Then they came out with 36 channels including WPIX out of New York and everybody was saying, 'what are we going to do with all these channels?' We charged ,5.50 per month, which people thought was excessive."
Eventually the franchise was bought out by Warner-Amex Cable Co., which later merged with Time to become Time Warner Cable.
Mr. Arnold is proud he had a hand in designing the camera surveillance system.
"I was 26 at the time and just felt lucky as heck to be a part of this thing," he said. "I think it was just a little bit ahead of its time."
® Contact reporter John Eberth at email@example.com