Like my college-age daughters, I am in love with my iPhone. And my ardor increased while I was researching a guidebook. With my cellphone, I narrated each hike into the Notes app, consulted Google Maps when I got lost and used the Camera app to capture scenery. As I worked, I wondered how we got from room-size mainframes to this portable computer in my hand.
So when Southwest Airlines started offering daily nonstops from Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport to San Jose, I booked a trip with my husband, Eric. After an affordable transcontinental flight, we landed at Mineta San Jose International Airport, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Without a personal invitation from an employee, you can’t enter the offices of Apple, Facebook or Google, but you can visit each campus on your own. We like taking tours, so we reserved with a company that provides personalised ones and explains how Silicon Valley came to be.
Marveling at San Jose’s Mediterranean climate, we waited outside the Fairmont Hotel for our tour guide, Sharon Traeger, to pick us up. Driving through morning traffic, she described key events in Silicon Valley’s history.
“In the early 20th century, this valley was full of blooming fruit orchards with cherry, plum and apricot trees. It was called the Valley of Heart’s Delight.” Traeger went on: “Back then, electronics were manufactured on the East Coast, until an electrical engineer named William Shockley and his team at Bell Labs developed the transistor.” After winning the Nobel Prize in 1956, Shockley decided to attach his transistors to wafers made of silicon, an abundant element and primary component of sand. The development of silicon chips allowed manufacturers to miniaturise electronics – radios and televisions first, and eventually computers and cellphones.
“Silicon has the possibility to conduct or not conduct, so that’s the importance,” Traeger explained. “All of a sudden, you can make gates for electrons and control electrons. This is how we became Silicon Valley.”
Shockley returned to his home town of Palo Alto, California, and hired eight engineers to operate his company. The group built integrated circuits on chips, but soon Shockley’s hires became disgruntled with his management style and left to build their own semiconductors, naming their company Fairchild Semiconductor.
“Fairchild becomes a powerhouse,” Traeger continued. “Not just for making money, but because it spins off lots of start-ups. These start-ups grew exponentially, and with steady customers like the US space program, scientists moved in droves to San Jose.”
Like a second California Gold Rush, engineers with big ideas partnered with academicians and venture capitalists. Then in 1977, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs debuted the Apple II, a groundbreaking personal computer. About 20 years later, two Stanford University students developed a querying tool for the World Wide Web called Google.
We chose to visit the GooglePlex campus. Here, we snapped some selfies with plastic Android figures named after desserts, rode the colorful Google Bikes and bought Google merchandise. Self-driving robotic cars zipped by, and one of the Google Street View cars was on display. We didn’t make it to Facebook or lunch at the Samsung cafeteria, but we did stop by Jobs’s childhood home. Apple – as well as Hewlett-Packard and Google – began in a local garage.
Traeger recommended that we visit two museums celebrating the digital age.
Seasoned tech users will marvel over the world’s largest collection of computer-related artifacts, including the IBM 1401 Demo Lab and the historic Apple-1 signed by “Woz,” both on display at the Computer History Museum.
We also toured the family-friendly Tech Museum, where visitors interact with 3-D printers, build robots and learn something about cybersecurity. My surgeon husband was fascinated with the 3-D interactive operating table.
But the biggest draw is sure to be Apple Park, nicknamed the Spaceship, when it officially opens later this year.
The 2.8 million-square-foot circular building, covered in panels of curved glass, will house 12,000 workers.
“Apple is into design, and they want everything to be perfect. Inside and out, backwards and forwards,” Traeger noted. Jobs envisioned this 21st-century workspace to operate entirely on renewable energy. Tourists will be able to enter the stand-alone visitor center, Apple store and cafe. The best views are said to be from its rooftop terrace.
That night we scored a table at Adega, the popular Michelin-starred Portuguese restaurant. Pastry chef Jessica Carreira longed to return to Little Portugal, her neighbourhood in San Jose, and convinced her Portuguese fiance, David Costa, to open a restaurant. After one year, Adega has earned accolades for its California twist on traditional Portuguese dishes such as the Arroz de Pato, a heavenly combination of duck, chorizo and rice.
San Jose is a true melting pot. Mayor Sam Liccardo says nearly 40 per cent of its residents were born in another country, “so we’re treated to an incredibly diverse selection of cuisine in many unique neighbourhoods.”
That’s evident as you wander through San Pedro Square Market, Spanish California’s oldest settlement, now a collection of 20 multicultural eateries. Last year, the Japantown neighbourhood celebrated its 125th anniversary, and San Jose has the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam.
For our last technology stop, we drove up Mount Hamilton to inspect the University of California’s Lick Observatory. Not for the faint of heart, the winding one-hour drive offers panoramic views of Silicon Valley stretching across the South Bay. Lick was built in 1888, and is still home to 100 astronomers searching the cosmos. Free talks describe the observatory’s achievements, like verifying Einstein’s geometric theory of gravitation. You’ll see the Great Refractor, the first giant telescope and dome built on a mountaintop. At night, you won’t need a telescope to behold celestial bodies of the Milky Way.
Back at the airport, three robots directed passengers, and I thought about Traeger’s musings: “Silicon Valley started with an electronics movement, but now it’s mobile devices and self-driving cars. These people are idealistic. They think, what’s stopping me from solving the energy problem or health care? How can we prolong life or get to Mars? They’re not content with discovering little things.”
It’s hard to imagine what inventions will next emerge on those sprawling campuses.