Mak­ing a dig­i­tal-age cir­cuit through Silicon Val­ley.

A his­tor­i­cal tour of the Cal­i­for­nia tech hot spot

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY RE­NEE SKLAREW travel@wash­post.com Sklarew is a writer based in the District. Find her on Twit­ter: @DCWriterMom.

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, used Google Maps when I got lost and the Cam­era app to cap­ture scenery. As I worked, I won­dered how we got from room-size main­frames to this portable com­put­erin-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 per­son­al­ized 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 minia­tur­ize 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 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 U.S. 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 fam­i­lyfriendly 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 Miche­lin­starred Por­tuguese restau­rant. Pas­try chef Jes­sica Car­reira longed to re­turn to Lit­tle Por­tu­gal, her neigh­bor­hood 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 per­cent of its res­i­dents were born in another coun­try, “so we’re treated to an in­cred­i­bly di­verse selec­tion of cui­sine in many unique neigh­bor­hoods.”

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 neigh­bor­hood 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 one­hour 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.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: The Great Re­frac­tor tele­scope looms above at Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia’s Lick Ob­ser­va­tory atop Mount Hamilton; an ex­am­ple of the Ap­ple II com­puter that gave the com­pany its first ma­jor mar­ket break­through is on dis­play at the Com­puter His­tory Mu­seum in Moun­tain View, Calif.; kids per­form hands-on ex­per­i­ments at the Tech Mu­seum of In­no­va­tion in San Jose.

PHO­TOS BY RE­NEE SKLAREW

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