Note 1: Portion of 1982 Silicon Valley map by Maryanne Regal Hoburg. Courtesy: The David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Library

Exploring Silicon Valley’s High-Tech Heritage Trail

Story and Photos by David A. Laws.

In an earlier article,  Silicon Valley High Tech Tourism: Selfies and Swag,” I reported a lighthearted survey of tech-related tourist magnets in deepest Nerdistan. This second article responds to requests for more information on the places where engineers and scientists finally accomplished the feat that eluded alchemists for centuries – how to turn sand (silicon) into gold (computer chips).  The following itinerary covers a distance of about 30 miles from Stanford University to the former IBM disk-drive campus in south San Jose. With a stop to ponder the implications of events that took place at each site and a break at the Computer History Museum, where many related artifacts are on display, this trip can occupy a full day. (Do not attempt the drive during busy commuter hours.)

Hoover Tower, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
Hoover Tower

Stanford University Campus: For an aerial view of the trail route and the southern San Francisco Peninsula, start your tour of what I call the Silicon Valley High Tech Heritage Trail at the Observation Platform atop the 285-foot Art Deco landmark Hoover Tower on the Stanford University campus. Ten miles southeast the southern boundary of the early days of Silicon Valley is marked by the skeleton, (the outer covering has been removed due to toxic chemicals in the roofing material), of Hanger One, a giant 1930s dirigible hanger, at Moffett Naval Airfield. Today the name Silcon Valley, conceived in 1971 after the primary material used in the manufacture of microelectronic computer chips, is applied to much of the Bay Area.

Since the founding of Stanford University by Governor and Jane Stanford in 1885, the faculty and students have contributed to the creation of numerous inventions and high-tech companies. The Business School claims that “No fewer than 39,900 active companies can trace their roots to Stanford.” There are many places on campus where ideas and products for these businesses germinated. Few of those buildings remain. Most have been replaced by more grandiose structures funded by alumni and others who hit the jackpot, including Hewlett and Packard, James Clark (Netscape), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Jen-Hsun Huang (Nvidia).

The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge 1878
The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge 1878

The oldest tech-related site on campus is marked by California Registered Historical Landmark (CRHL) #834 near the western entrance to Campus Drive. The plaque titled “Development of Motion Pictures” commemorates an event in 1887 when Governor Stanford bet his cronies that all four hooves of a galloping horse leave the ground. An interpretive panel on “The horse in motion” near the Red Barn (100 Electioneer Rd, Stanford University) describes how he hired photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge to settle the matter. Trip wires attached to 24 cameras fitted with electro-shutters recorded a series of images. The Governor won. When viewed on Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope device, photos show the horse appeared to gallop. These images inspired Thomas Edison’s development of motion pictures.

Margaret Jacks Hall, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
Margaret Jacks Hall

Margaret Jacks Hall, in the quadrangle of Richardson-Romanesque sandstone buildings at the heart of campus, served as an early home for the computer science department. Venture capitalist John Doerr claims that even an idiot could have been a successful VC in the 1980s. “All you had to do was hang around Margaret Jacks Hall.” Here Jim Clark worked on the Geometry Engine, a chip for a hardware accelerator to render computer images based on geometric models, that gave birth to Silicon Graphics and Hollywood special effects. Andy Bechtolsheim designed a workstation for the Stanford University Network (SUN) that led to Sun Microsystems. Cisco Systems, Google, Yahoo, and numerous other start-ups also emerged from that fertile brew.

Site of Federal Telegraph Company Laboratory, Palo Alto, California
Site of Federal Telegraph Company Laboratory, Palo Alto

Early Palo Alto:  In Palo Alto, just across the railroad tracks from Stanford, in 1908 engineering graduate Cyril Elwell demonstrated an electronic innovation that kick-started the tech orientation of the valley. Accompanied by two assistants carrying a transmitter, coils of wire (for the radio antenna) and Leyden jars (for power) he made “wireless” telephone calls over a distance of almost a mile. In an early example of Silicon Valley venture funding, the president and Stanford faculty members invested in Elwell’s start-up. The Federal Telegraph Company (FTC) grew into an important supplier of wireless communications gear to the Navy in WWI and a training ground for a generation of Bay Area radio electronics engineers.

Lee de Forest, the self-styled “Father of radio,” demonstrated the first practical application of his Audion triode vacuum tube in the FTC laboratory in 1911. Using the tube as an electronic amplifier, he nearly destroyed his eardrums with the loud tick-tock of his “trusty Ingersoll” pocket watch. American Telephone and Telegraph purchased the rights for amplifying signals in long distance phone calls. The site is marked “Electronics Research Laboratory” at 913 Emerson Street by CRHL plaque # 836.

FTC alumnus Charles Litton founded Litton Engineering Laboratories in San Carlos in 1932 to build tube making equipment. With the success of his venture, Litton donated $1,000 to fund a position for David Packard in Professor Fredrick Terman’s laboratory at Stanford. With Terman’s encouragement, Packard joined William Hewlett to start the Hewlett Packard company (HP) in a garage behind their rented home at 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto.

HP house and Garage, Palo Alto, California
HP house and Garage

Walt Disney placed the first major order for their HP-200A audio oscillator. Eight units purchased in 1939 were used in production of the movie Fantasia. Neighbors knew when business was good because the car was parked outside the garage and Lucille Packard’s kitchen oven was drying freshly painted gear. She claimed roast beef never tasted the same again.

HP restored and owns the property but there is no public access beyond the CRHL # 976 plaque that proclaims the garage as “The Birthplace of Silicon Valley.” The company played an important role in Silicon Valley history and pioneered the “management by walking around” and open-door culture that characterizes modern tech workplaces. Purists insist that the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View is more deserving of the association with silicon in Silicon Valley. A co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, whose boyhood home is located half a block away from the HP house, i.e., at 959 Waverley Street, introduced silicon semiconductor material to the Valley in 1956.

Stanford Research Park: Created in 1951 straddling Palo Alto’s Sand Hill Road, Stanford Research Park blends the brains of university research with the entrepreneurial drive of the business world in a campus-like setting. The concept has evolved into a model of academic-industry cooperation that is emulated across the globe.

Russel and Sigurd Varian invented the klystron microwave tube at Stanford in 1937. Small and light enough to power airborne radar equipment, the klystron helped the Allies win WWII and ignited explosive growth in local companies devoted to microwave and communications technology. Their company, Varian Associates, hedged its bet as Stanford Research Park’s first tenant in 1953 by designing a redwood-framed California ranch-style structure for alternate use as a school. At 607 Hansen Way, Palo Alto, the structure still houses a company that is building communications components.

David Packard’s office retains its 1950s decor, Palo Alto, California
David Packard’s office retains its 1950s decor

Hewlett Packard moved into new headquarters in the park shortly after Varian Associates. Now the exterior walls are decorated with mosaics of stylized oscilloscope sine waves, inspired by the company’s original instrumentation products. One of the original surviving structures of HP Inc., now a Customer Welcome Center at 1501 Page Mill Road, maintains the founders’ offices in their original sleek, mid-century modern oak-paneled décor. {Note that access to the Customer Welcome Center is available only to visitors accompanied by company personnel.}

The most visible public recognition of Silicon Valley tech history that has emerged in recent years is a series of Milestone plaques sponsored by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). Each plaque commemorates a significant event in the development of technology. Eighteen plaques have been dedicated in the region as of 2019. An IEEE Milestone marking the 1972 “Development of the HP-35, the First Handheld Scientific Calculator” is mounted in the lobby of HP building 3U.

Palo Alto Research Center: East coast copier giant Xerox established PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in 1970 to tap into the region’s talent and technology. Gary Starkweather’s invention of the laser printer benefited the mother company but PARC also famously spun off ideas that reshaped Silicon Valley. The graphical user interface (GUI), Ethernet networking, powerful personal workstations, and IC design techniques all emerged from its pursuit of “The Office of the Future”. In the lobby at 3333 Coyote Hill Road, Palo Alto, during business hours, you can view one of PARC’s most influential developments, the Xerox Alto computer. That equipment set the model for the Apple Mac and personal computing for decades.   An IEEE Milestone plaque for the Alto is planned for the lobby.

Steve Jobs’s family home, Los Altos circa 2000, California
Steve Jobs’s family home, Los Altos, circa 2000

Apple and Steve Jobs, the most famous beneficiaries of Xerox innovations, borrowed the Alto’s GUI, mouse, and other features to differentiate the Macintosh from the rest of the early PC makers. Together with Steve Wozniak, Jobs co-founded Apple Computer and built the Apple-1 in his parents’ suburban tract home less than 10 miles away at 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos. {Private residence, do not disturb.}

Semiconductor device sculptures in the sidewalk at 391 San Antonio Road, Mountain View, California
Semiconductor device sculptures in the sidewalk at 391 San Antonio Road

Mountain View: Scientists and engineers fabricated the first silicon devices in the Valley at the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in a former apricot packing shed at 391 San Antonio Road, Mountain View in 1956. Razed in 2014 for a multi-use commercial development, the lab site is commemorated with an IEEE Milestone plaque, an interpretive panel, and towering semiconductor device sculptures mounted in the sidewalk.

Eight disgruntled Shockley employees quit in 1957 and set up shop as Fairchild Semiconductor just down the street at 844 E. Charleston Road, Palo Alto. Their fabrication of the first monolithic integrated circuit (computer chip) at this site in 1960 is commemorated by plaques CRHL # 1000 for the “First Commercially Practicable Integrated Circuit” and an IEEE Milestone plaque.

First headquarters of Fairchild Semiconductor, 844 E. Charleston Road, Palo Alto, California
First headquarters of Fairchild Semiconductor, 844 E. Charleston Road, Palo Alto

Fairchild flourished as the archetypal Silicon Valley start-up for more than a decade. According to co-founder and R&D director Gordon Moore, “Every time we came up with a new idea, we spawned two or three companies trying to exploit it.” After spinning out more than 125 semiconductor start-ups, including AMD and Intel, through 1985, one of its offspring, National Semiconductor, acquired the company in 1987.

In 1965 when a silicon chip barely held ten transistors, Fairchild’s Moore published an article that predicted an exponential growth in the number of transistors that could be squeezed onto a chip. Competitors adopted this as a guideline and it served to prod competition in computer-chip progress for more than 50 years. Today’s chips can hold billions of transistors. Known as Moore’s Law, his observation is honored with an IEEE Milestone plaque and a 20-foot high silicon molecule sculpture in a Technology Plaza at the center of the new 391 San Antonio, Mountain View complex.

Silicon molecule sculpture in the Technology Plaza behind 391 San Antonio Road, Mountain View, California
Silicon molecule sculpture in the Technology Plaza behind 391 San Antonio Road, Mountain View

Numerous other start-ups began life in Mountain View but, typical of the short life-cycle of technology companies, few companies remain. Of those shown on the 1982 map (by Maryanne Regal Hoburg in the Stanford University Library), at the top of this story, most companies are now long forgotten.

The Computer History Museum, located in a landmark former Silicon Graphics office building at 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd, offers a convenient place to stop and relax while viewing and learning about products created at sites along the High Tech Heritage Trail. The permanent exhibit, “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing”, includes a Xerox Alto workstation and Laser printer, an Apple 1 computer, the prototype Atari Pong game, Intel’s first microprocessor, and IBM’s first disk drive.

The Pong prototype video game on display at the Computer History Museum, Palo Alto, California
The Pong prototype video game on display at the Computer History Museum

South Valley:  Andy Capp’s Tavern in 1972, now Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Club at 157 W. El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, is a site famous in video-game lore. This is where Atari engineer Al Alcorn delivered a prototype Pong arcade game for testing in a real-world setting. Summoned several days later by a terse message “The machine is broken,” Al realized they had a winner when he saw its coin-catcher jammed full of quarters.

After spinning out of Fairchild in 1998, Intel Corporation started life in a now demolished building half a block from its mother company. The headquarters soon moved to 3095 Bowers Avenue, Santa Clara (SC1) where the model 1103 Dynamic 1024-bit Random Access Memory (RAM) and the 4004 4-bit Microprocessor (MPU) were introduced in 1970 and ’71 respectively. These two chips established Intel as a major player in the most important growth segments of the computer industry. The company continues to dominate the MPU market today. There is no public access to the SC1 building, but visitors are welcome at the Intel Museum a few minutes away at 2200 Mission College Blvd, Santa Clara.

Delivering a RAMAC disk drive. Photo: Courtesy IBM
Delivering a RAMAC disk drive. Photo: Courtesy IBM

The final two Silicon Valley High Tech Heritage Trail stops relate to IBM’s pioneering of magnetic data storage for computers. Continuous size and cost reductions achieved in hard disk drive (HDD) units, comparable to those predicted by Moore’s Law for computer chips, made them a key component of the personal computer revolution.

Led by Reynolds Johnson, IBM engineers built the first commercial HDD with a capacity of 3.75 megabytes at 99 Notre Dame in downtown San Jose in 1956. Weighing more than one ton, to move the Model 350 RAMAC disk storage unit required the services of a forklift. Many colorful industry pioneers, including Al Shugart, founder of Seagate Technology, made their start in this building that is celebrated with an IEEE Milestone plaque on the exterior wall.

IBM Building 25 interpretive pavilion on Cottle Road, San Jose, California
IBM Building 25 interpretive pavilion on Cottle Road, San Jose

IBM’s success with the HDD spawned a 190-acre campus in south San Jose. Building-25 housed an R&D laboratory that produced many important advances in storage technology. Modernist architecture with floor-to-ceiling glass walls opening to patios landscaped with sculpture and water features offered a glimpse of high-tech campuses to come. After being destroyed by fire and replaced by a Lowe’s big-box warehouse, a pergola-style pavilion in the parking lot at 5550 Cottle Road displays interpretive panels on the history of Building-25.

Advances in technology have bestowed enormous benefits as well as major new challenges to the fabric of society and the quality of life in Silicon Valley. But the key ingredients of intellectual curiosity and entrepreneurial drive that gave rise to its success appear unchanged. The extraordinary variety of products, from portable digital devices to autonomous vehicles, that have emerged since my first exploration of the Valley will hopefully offer abundant sources for future industrial archaeologists to mine as they create a new 21st century technology heritage trail for the Silicon Valley.

For more articles by David  follow his link and follow this link more articles on California Travel destinations.

IF YOU GO:  i) Be aware that the geography, structures, and artifacts along this route change, pop-up, and disappear daily. Check to verify the current status of any specific destination of interest before you leave. ii) The Computer History Museum is open from Wednesday through Sunday. Check the website for hours, holiday closings, and special events. A gift shop with a wide assortment of “geek gear” and a café are located onsite. Parking is free. iii) The Stanford Campus is open to all. Parking fees apply. It is the only site on the trail within easy walking distance of Caltrain service (at Palo Alto station). Check the Tourists and Visitors site for information on sightseeing opportunities. iv) For security reasons few corporations permit public access. Some businesses that accommodate curious fans are described on the Travel Examiner website in “Silicon Valley High Tech Tourism: Selfies and Swag.

Note: A portion of the 1982 Silicon Valley map by Maryanne Regal Hoburg is reproduced at the top of this article courtesy of The David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Library.