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 on Silicon Valley’s Hi-Tech Heritage is about matters old and new. New is the Apple Park Visitor Center. It is located near the new “spaceship” headquarters of Apple Computers in Cupertino. The chapter also covers the three great museums in the Silicon Valley. Each tells the story of the computer and technology revolutions changing our lives. One museum, the Computer History Museum, has a “software creation” exhibit. That display complements its earlier major “hardware” presentation.)
In California’s Silicon Valley, you can learn about the computer and technology revolution that is affecting the world today. For instance, the story comes alive at the new Apple Park Visitor Center in Cupertino. In addition you can visit three great museums located, appropriately, in this Northern California epicenter of innovation.
These high-tech revolutions have altered the face of San Jose and the Silicon Valley. You find the area, which is 30-50 miles south of San Francisco. It stretches along the western and southern edge of San Francisco Bay.
Originally a bucolic ranching region, San Jose began as a small pueblo and Spanish mission in the 18th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the valley developed as one of the most important fruit-growing areas in the United States. Growers shipped apples, plums, apricots, peaches, and cherries all over the country. Later, Steve Jobs of Apple remembered fondly the orchards of his youth.
At the end of World War II, a new direction emerged. Electronics and other high-technology industries began to appear. And, with it, San Jose grew. The area is now the 10th largest metropolitan region in the U.S. San Jose is the capital of Santa Clara County. It also has one of the highest per capita incomes in the country. Entrepreneurs create computers, chips, software, and other high-tech products. The main design and manufacturing efforts are geared for both civilian and military use.
Many consumers would like to learn more about this technology story. However, opportunities are limited because the companies are inherently secretive. Nevertheless, Apple Park Visitor Center and three great museums let you encounter this modern technical history.
First, you begin your day of exploring by starting at the Apple Park Visitor Center in Cupertino. Then you venture on to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. From there, you visit the Intel Museum in Santa Clara. Finally, you take in 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. They are located 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. The circular, glass structure houses 12,000 employees who are thinking up the future of Apple. From the upstairs outdoor rooftop terrace at the 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. It contains 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. Furthermore, you can zoom in on the Health and Wellness Center where Apple employees unwind.
By many standards, the new Apple headquarters is one of the remarkable architectural structures of our era. It was designed by Norman Foster.
First, it is large. The construction is said to be the largest office building in the world. In fact, it is bigger than the Pentagon. It’s slim and round and goes on and on. Furthermore it maintains an orchard and forest of 9,000 trees within and outside it.
Second, it is a remarkably energy-efficient building. The edifice is said to be fully powered by its own solar roof panels. Moreover, energy demand is kept minimal by a sophisticated system of hillside berms. These berms contain portals that draw air in and cool it with underground water. Thus, the system provides an appropriate air-con for the structure. In the quest for “green” corporate architecture, this Apple “spaceship” surely will be one of the milestones.
The Apple Park Visitor Center building itself is an elegant model of design. It looks like the box in which a buyer gets an iPhone. It’s minimalist, clean, open to the outdoors. The building is 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. There is also a cafe serving coffee and pastries. Naturally you can visit 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. On the spot you can use it and “airdrop” any visual results to yourself. And no purchase is needed. Apple is also all about the “future of retail.” So this is a subtle selling site without a cash register.
Many consumers are shocked on their first visit to any of the 500+ Apple stores worldwide. The Visitor Center is said to be #498. Here you will find no cash registers. Likewise You will see no paper consumables when there are transactions.
Not everyone is pleased with a visit to the Apple Park Visitor Center. While you can get close to the Apple “aura” from the second floor deck, you are not actually in the “spaceship.”To some, just gazing out at a small portion of the “spaceship” will be a thrill. After all, you are near 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 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; https://www.apple.com/retail/appleparkvisitorcenter/?cid=aos-us-seo-maps
The Computer History Museum
The Computer History Museum features a major exhibit on “software creation.” The exhibit complements the earlier landmark display on “computer hardware.” Both components are critical to comprehending the computer revolution altering our lives.
The new exhibit is called “Make Software: Change the World.” It explores the history, impact, and technology behind seven game-changing applications. Among the featured softwares are MP3 for music distribution and PhotoShop for digital manipulation and animated movies. Also shown are MRI for health analysis and Car Crash Simulation to show the effect on an actual crash without the crash. In addition,the show covers Texting as a means of communication. Finally, the exhibit explains Wikipedia as a vision of knowledge sharing.
Each visitor will react differently to these software applications. It will depend on their special interest. Collectively, the applications profoundly influence everyone. For instance, one software display is portrayed metaphorically. You see it 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. Here, you can sit in an actual Google self-driving car. It is surprising how simplified the interior appears.
This new emphasis on “software” provides a complement to another exhibit on “hardware.” That exhibit is called “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.”
Large Collection of Computers
The Computer History Museum houses the largest international collection of computing artifacts in the world. Obviously the repository includes computer hardware and software documentation. But it also contains ephemera, photographs, and oral histories relating to the science. The museum even offers moving images. The visitor will find a number of surprising historical details. For instance, you will learn how they invented the abacus for calculation.
The museum brings computer history to life through its large-scale exhibits. Furthermore it offers 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; http://www.computerhistory.org/.
The Tech Museum
The Tech Museum presents a broad interpretation of technological innovations.
For instance, this museum celebrates inventiveness. It showcases inventiveness in several technical fields with more than 200 “minds on” exhibits. Meanwhile, 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. For instance, visitors learn from exhibits how DNA works. In addition, they see 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 can make real robots. To accomplish that, they use sensors, controllers, and other equipment. Nearby, Kaiser Permanente sponsors the Body Metrics section. To clarify, this display offers the latest developments. For instance, you learn about wearable technology and other health care devices of the present and future. Furthermore, 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. In addition you can take virtual travel trips. Similarly, you learn about computer animation and nanotechnology. And Cyber Detectives is an interactive exhibit that helps you understand the importance of Internet safety. It is one of the country’s first of its kind.
As one might expect, The Tech exists both in a building in downtown San Jose and on the web. To access the particularly lush and robust site, go to www.thetech.org.
The Tech earned the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The award is the highest honor for a U.S. museum.
The Tech Museum is at 201 S. Market St., San Jose, CA 95113; 408-294-8324; https://www.thetech.org/
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. Finally, the multi-national company opened the museum to the public in 1992. The facility expanded to a 10,000-square-foot space in 1999.
The Intel Museum shows the technology evolution of the computer chip industry since the 1960s. In addition, the gallery portrays 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. The company invented the first dynamic random access memory (DRAM). Also their technicians created the first erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROMS).
On a single computer chip, billions of transistors are packed into a quarter-inch square. Amazingly, those tiny transistors process information in billionths of a second. In additioin, the Intel Museum shows the differences between various kinds of computer chips.
The Intel Museum has more than 30 hands-on exhibits. Each one tells about the wonders of the computer and the chips that drive them.
For instance, visitors see how computer chips are constructed in ultra-clean, highly automated factories. Furthermore they learn how chips pervade the products in our everyday lives.
A gift store sells technology-related items. For example you can buy apparel decorated with computer designs and stationery items. Also they offer 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; https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/company-overview/intel-museum.html
For exact addresses, see listings above. The Apple Park Visitor Center is located in Cupertino. The Computer History Museum is found 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
Each of the four sites presents many interesting perspectives on the modern high-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. Likewise, Computer History Museum closes Monday and Tuesday. Such details can change.
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; www.westinsanjose.com.
For California cuisine in San Jose, try Café Stritch (374 S. 1st St.; 408/280-6161; www.cafestritch.com). 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; www.sanjose.org).