Daily Archives: September 5, 2013

A Geek Visits Silicon Valley

I’ll be honest, before my trip (and even well into it!) I had little conception of California’s geography. San Francisco was in the middle and LA in the south, and there were a lot of fruit farms. I wasn’t sure where Silicon Valley was, and I had no idea it was so close to San Francisco (its heart is within an hour of the city).

So after crossing the bridge across the bay, I was greeted by a quick succession of legendary towns and had to make a quick re-evaluation. I decided to delay my visit to the city by one day and instead check out some of the sites in the valley.

I wanted to check out the garages where famous startups began, and I wanted to see the endless berms of green grass in technology parks. So many of these stories from the 60s through the 90s have passed into legend, here was a chance to check out where it all happened. The best place to get a sense for the scene in the 80s is at folklore.org. There are hundreds of hilarious and interesting stories; some purely entertainment and some fairly technical.

I collected a set of 15 addresses I wanted to visit. When I started sorting through them on my GPS, I was first struck by how centralized they were, none more than 10 minute from one another. Although they are technically separate towns, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, and others form one perfect stretch of suburbia. There are downtown sections, but these are tiny, hardly citylike. They’re swallowed up in suburbs.

The birthplace of Silicon Valley (actually in the shed out back!)

Although the roots of Silicon Valley stretch back to the early 20th century, the first flagship ‘startup’ was Hewlett-Packard, which was formed in 1938. Initially manufacturing oscilloscopes, HP expanded into calculators and then computers. Although the company today has a reputation for making crappy laptops and cheap plastic printers, that’s a relatively recent innovation (according to HP veterans, the company was gutted by Carly Fiorina starting in 1999). Early on HP had a reputation for engineers-first, humane management, decentralized leadership, and so forth. Steve Wozniak was thrilled to be employed at HP in the 60s. All that started in a garage in Palo Alto, near Stanford University. This was pretty awesome to see. It was in a very nice neighborhood just a few blocks from the trendy ‘downtown’ Palo Alto area.

Google’s first office (also Paypal and Logitech)

In that downtown area was another one of my stops: the first headquarters of Google (and also second office of Paypal and Logitech’s office – what occupants)! There was a street festival going on for many blocks around this modest building. It’s now a T-Mobile store and a restaurant, the history completely disappeared. I think there may be a sad gap in the timeline of historic sites, with many of these legendary buildings disappearing or being altered.

The original site of Xerox PARC, 1970-77 (building probably replaced)

Next it was time for some office parks. My number one favorite institute of the time period (and perhaps the most legendary) was Xerox PARC. There’s a great history in the book Dealers of Lightning. In short, from 1970 through 1977, PARC essentially invented the modern computer. Notable inventions included ethernet, laser printers, bitmap graphics, modern word processors, the modern user interface, object oriented programming, and so on. They also unified many earlier inventions, such as the mouse ,into a single package, the Xerox Alto. (The other legendary innovator was Douglas Englebart at SRI).

PARC headquarters after 1977 (to present)

Then, in an unforgivable crime, corporate headquarters ignored all these developments and they languished – until Steve Jobs saw them and copied everything, leading eventually to the Macintosh. There are stories of Xerox engineers crying with anger when they found out they had to demo everything to Jobs. There’s a great movie about this, Pirates of Silicon Valley, that’s well worth watching. It has some great acting and focuses on the relationship between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

This machine actually did the ‘merge’ step in merge sort!

The next morning I visited the Computer History Museum. This was one of the best museums I’ve visited, though probably not interesting to a general audience. There’s a ton of artifacts there, ranging from slide rules through supercomputers, ‘minicomputers’ and the personal computer. It was great to see some legendary systems in person. They had the PDP-8, the first widely-purchased, affordable computer (affordable for universities!); many of the first hackers used these computers as they learned to program.

There was also a Cray-1, the first supercomputer (even when I was first learning about computers, Crays had a reputation as “the fastest computer”, Cray himself died when I was a kid).

Inside the CDC 6600, designed by Seymour Cray. The fastest computer of its time (and hand wired…)

Among older systems there were many IBM punch-card machines from the 30s. In a sense these weren’t really “computers,” rather they performed simple operations to collate data in punchcards. For instance, they would sort the punchcards or discard invalid ones. What’s interesting is that the sorting systems prefigured many of the modern computer science sorts: there was a ‘radix sort’ and ‘merge sort’ machine, but human operators needed to handle some of the steps.

Babbage’s Difference Engine. Calculations on left; output on right.

The most famous exhibit in the museum is a working construction of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine. This was an incredible device: Babbage constructed, purely in his head and through sketches, a machine that could tabulate polynomial functions. There are something like 8000 parts. Not only that, it could output the results to a tape, word-wrap, change fonts, etc. Purely mechanically! It was strange hearing about this device, because it has many parts which correspond to modern computers (registers, for instance). The difference engine was not constructed in Babbage’s lifetime, and there are only 3 modern constructions in existence.

The Apple I. Only the board was sold, other parts had to be added manually.

Then there were personal computers. I saw some I was personally familiar with and had used (such as the earliest briefcase-sized laptops), or Macintosh. There was also an Apple II, and an Apple I autographed by Woz (the Apple I and II were designed by Steve Wozniak and marketed by Steve Jobs).

Example of ephemera: core memory from the Apollo moon mission

There were critical pieces of computer history: cabinets that represented parts of ENIAC, JOHNNIAC, UNIVAC, part of the SAGE system that assured IBM computer dominance in the 50s, a unix manual from 1973, and other essential parts of computer history. Then there was a variety of ephemera: analog computers, sexist ‘recipe computers’ from the 60s, Google’s Street Maps car, and so on.

Omigod! The Xerox Alto!

For me, the highlight was getting to see a Xerox Alto. As I’ve alluded to, this has reached mythical status for me, so seeing the machine in person was incredible. It was sitting all alone, and although there was a little poster behind it, I think they glossed over it’s importance a bit.

The famous Los Altos garage where Apple began

Then it was on to some more sights. This was Sunday afternoon, so things were quiet around town. I drove down to Los Altos to check out what is perhaps the most famous garage in history, in Steve Jobs’ childhood home, where Woz designed the Apple I and where Apple was born. It was in a regular old neighborhood, not a particularly nice house, and it felt strange to be sitting outside where someone lived, so I quickly left.

Then I checked out the Google campus, which was so big that no building really stood out, and drove through some tech parks, also checking out the first headquarters of Intel (a seminal moment for chip manufacturing). These parks were quite a shock for me, I’ve never seen so many major companies so close to one another: Skype, Facebook, Google, Tibco, Symantec, Siemans, the infamous Zynga. Around nearly every corner it seemed there was a major tech company.

The weather here was great, the surroundings comfortable. It seems like a nice place to live – and I guess everyone agrees, because the cost of living is incredibly high! I’m glad I got to check out this haven for geek culture.