By Lee Foster

(Author’s Note: I am exploring California as I update my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This chapter is about the new Apple Park Visitor Center, near the new “spaceship” headquarters of Apple Computers in Cupertino. It also covers the three great museums in the Silicon Valley that tell the story of the computer and technology revolutions changing our lives. One museum, the Computer History Museum, has a new “software creation” exhibit that complements its earlier major “hardware” presentation.)

In Brief: The story of the computer and technology revolution affecting the world comes alive at the new Apple Park Visitor Center and in three great museums located, appropriately, in California’s Silicon Valley, an epicenter of innovation.

These revolutions have altered the face of San Jose and the Silicon Valley, 30-50 miles south of San Francisco along the western and southern edge of San Francisco Bay.

My Osborne Computer, 1980, a copy of which can be seen at the Computer History Museum
My Osborne Computer, 1980, a copy of which can be seen at the Computer History Museum

Originally a bucolic ranching region, nurtured by a small pueblo and Spanish mission in the 18th century, the valley developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries as one of the most important fruit-growing areas in the United States. Apples, plums, apricots, peaches, and cherries were shipped all over the country from here. Steve Jobs of Apple remembered fondly the orchards of his youth.

At the end of World War II, a new direction emerged: the introduction of electronics and other high-technology industries. San Jose began to grow, until the area is now the 10th largest metropolitan region in the U.S. San Jose is the capital of Santa Clara County, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the country. Computers, chips, software, and other high-tech products, both civilian and military, are the main design and manufacturing efforts.

David Laws, the Silicon Valley travel expert, shows on an iPad an “augmented reality” portrait of the interior of the model of the new Apple “spaceship” headquarters immediately across the street from the new Apple Park Visitor Center in Cupertino, CA.

Many consumers would like to learn more about this technology story, but opportunities are limited because the companies are inherently secretive. However, Apple Park Visitor Center and three great museums let you encounter this modern technical history.

Begin a day of exploring by starting at the Apple Park Visitor Center in Cupertino, then venture on to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, then the Intel Museum in Santa Clara, and The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. You might break up the day with lunch at one of the ethnic restaurants on Castro Street in Mountain View, near the Computer History Museum. I stopped by restaurant Ephesus for a Greek Salad enhanced by gyro meat.

Apple Park Visitor Center

Apple Park Visitor Center is an unusual one-of-a-kind corporate welcome center. Fans of Apple and computers in general will especially appreciate two aspects.

First, it is across the street from the new Apple “spaceship” world headquarters, a circular, glass structure in which 12,000 employees are thinking up the future of Apple. From the upstairs outdoor rooftop terrace at the Apple Park Visitor Center, you gaze across the street at a small part of the actual building.

Second, you can “see” inside the “spaceship” structure in an unusual way. On the north side of the Visitor Center is a large display room with a model of the circular headquarters. With provided iPads, you can take an “augmented reality” look inside the building. You can swipe the roof off and see the cubicles. You can zoom in on the Health and Wellness Center where Apple employees unwind.

By many standards, the new Apple “spaceship” headquarters, designed by Norman Foster, is one of the remarkable architectural structures of our era.

First, it is large, said to be the largest office building in the world, bigger than the Pentagon. It’s slim and round and goes on and on, with an orchard and forest of 9,000 trees within and outside it.

Second, it is a remarkably energy-efficient building, said to be fully powered by its own solar roof panels. Moreover, energy demand is kept minimal by a sophisticated system of hillside berms with portals that draw air in and cool it with underground water, providing an appropriate air-con for the structure. In the long quest for “green” corporate architecture, this Apple “spaceship” will be one of the milestones.

The Apple Park Visitor Center building itself is an elegant model of design, like the box in which a buyer gets an iPhone. It’s minimalist, clean, open to the outdoors, a study of simplicity. Olive trees, symbols of peace, reflect an exterior plant decor favored by Steve Jobs. The building has four above-ground components. The second-floor deck offers a limited view of a small portion of the “spaceship” across the street. The “augmented reality” display model area is on the first floor, as is a cafe serving coffee and pastries. There is a store featuring Apple products. In this Apple store, however, nothing is locked down for security. You are invited to pick up an iPhone or iPad and use it and “airdrop” any visual results to yourself, no purchase needed. Apple is also all about the “future of retail,” so this is a subtle selling site without a cash register. Many consumers experience a shock  on their first visit to any of the 500+ Apple stores worldwide (this site is said to be #498) to find there are no cash registers and no paper consumables when there are transactions.

Apple Park Visitor Center will not be pleasing to everyone. For anyone who wants to get close to the “aura” of Apple, just gazing out from the second floor deck at a small portion of the “spaceship” will be a thrill. After all, you are close to arguably one of the most innovative and successful corporate entities of our time. However, for those who view Apple idolatry as precious, the experience will be a tease. You are not actually in the “spaceship.” You are adjacent to it in a retail store. For some, virtual is not enough.

Apple Park Visitor Center is at 10600 N. Tantau Ave., Cupertino, CA 95014; 408/961-1560;

The Computer History Museum

The big news at the Computer History Museum is that a major exhibit on “software creation” now complements the earlier landmark exhibit on “computer hardware.” Both components are critical to comprehending the computer revolution altering our lives.

The new exhibit, “Make Software: Change the World,” explores the history, impact, and technology behind seven game-changing applications. The featured softwares are MP3 for music distribution, PhotoShop for digital manipulation and animated movies, MRI for health analysis, Car Crash Simulation to show the effect on an actual crash without the crash, Texting as a means of communication, and Wikipedia as a vision of knowledge sharing.

Author Lee Foster sits in a Google self-driving car, a triumph of software innovation, at the Computer History Museum in California’s Silicon Valley.

Each of these applications will have special interest for various visitors. Collectively, they have a profound influence on everyone. Software is portrayed metaphorically as the sheet music that makes the grand piano hardware of computer systems come alive.

Another aspect of the current software revolution is the autonomous self-driving car. You can sit in an actual Google self-driving car at the exhibit. It is surprising how simplified the interior appears.

This new emphasis on “software” provides a complement to the earlier exhibit, still present, on “hardware.” That exhibit is called “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.”

The Computer History Museum is home to the largest international collection of computing artifacts in the world. The repository includes computer hardware, software, documentation, ephemera, photographs, oral histories, and moving images. There are surprising details in the history covered, such as the invention of the abacus for calculation.

The museum brings computer history to life through its large-scale exhibits, a dynamic website, and docent-led tours. Computer geek or not, visitors will be fascinated by software or hardware details. For example, the IBM 1401 Demo Lab explains one of the most popular computers of all time.

The Computer History Museum is at 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View, CA 94303; 650-810-1010;

The Tech Museum

The Tech Museum presents a broad interpretation of technological innovations.

This museum celebrates inventiveness in several technical fields with more than 200 “minds on” exhibits. Theme galleries draw attention to technologies pioneered in the Silicon Valley. A sampling:

The BioDesign Studio encourages visitors of all ages to explore the building blocks of life. Visitors learn from exhibits how DNA works and how scientists are using biology to cope with the growing problems of global food and health issues.

Located on the Lower Level, the Social Robot Gallery is where people, using sensors, controllers, and other equipment, can make real robots. Nearby, the Body Metrics section, sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, offers the latest developments such as wearable technology and other health care devices of the present and future. The exhibits encourage visitors to improve their own well-being.

In the Silicon Valley Innovation Gallery, hands-on exhibits allow you to play with digital art, take virtual travel trips, and learn about computer animation and nanotechnology. Cyber Detectives is one of the country’s first interactive exhibits that help you understand the importance of Internet safety.

As one might expect, The Tech exists both in a building in downtown San Jose and on the web in a particularly lush and robust site,

The Tech has been awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest honor for a U.S. museum.

The Tech Museum is at 201 S. Market St., San Jose, CA 95113; 408-294-8324;

The Intel Museum

The Intel Museum is located at Intel’s headquarters in Santa Clara. Intel began assembling materials for the museum in the 1980s, opening it to the public in 1992, and expanding to a 10,000-square-foot facility in 1999.

The Intel Museum shows the technology evolution of the computer chip industry since the 1960s, portraying an only-yesterday wonder at the developments that Intel has pioneered. Here you can see how computer chips are designed and manufactured.

Intel is credited for many technical “firsts” in the development of computer chips. One was the first dynamic random access memory (DRAM). Another was the first erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROMS).

On a computer chip billions of transistors are packed into a quarter-inch square. The time that these transistors take to process information is measured in billionths of a second. The Intel Museum shows the differences between various kinds of computer chips.

The Intel Museum has more than 30 hands-on exhibits about the wonders of the computer and the chips that drive them.

Visitors see how computer chips are constructed in ultra-clean, highly automated factories and how chips pervade the products in our everyday lives.

A technology-related gift store emphasizes such items as computer designs on apparel, stationery items, water bottles with the Intel logo, backpacks, and “smart” computer-powered toys.

The Intel Museum is at 2200 Mission College Blvd, Santa Clara, CA 95054; 408-765-5050; 

Getting There: See exact addresses after each item. The Apple Park Visitor Center is in Cupertino. The Computer History Museum is located off Highway 101 south of San Francisco; take the Shoreline exit. The Tech Museum is sited in downtown San Jose. The Intel Museum is north of San Jose in Santa Clara.

Be Sure to See: The four sites present many interesting perspectives on the modern hi-tech revolution.

Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good for these museums. Call ahead or check the websites to verify times open. Apple Park Visitor Center opens at 10 a.m. Computer History Museum is closed Monday and Tuesday. Such details can change.

Lodging: One of the stately and historic downtown hotels in San Jose is the Westin San Jose (formerly the Sainte Claire) at 302 S. Market St.; 408/295-2000;

Dining: For California cuisine in San Jose, try Café Stritch (374 S. 1st St.; 408/280-6161; The grilled trout is a specialty; call or check website about jazz performances.

For Further Information: See the website for each of the four sites in the write-ups above.

The area tourism contact is Team San Jose (408 S. Almaden Blvd.; 408/792-4511 or 888/726-5673;



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