A Tech Tour of Silicon Valley

Venture to California's Silicon Valley to commune with the computers and capitalists that define our modern age.

Visitors create music at the Reactable, Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, Calif., image

Visitors collaborate to create electronic music using the Tech Museum of Innovation’s Reactable.

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Where, exactly, is Silicon Valley? It’s a region connected less by geography than by a virtual web of ideas. Given that the world now turns on a tweet, you may find it hard to imagine that 60 years ago the stretch of Northern California from San Mateo to San Jose was a chain of sleepy towns strung together with pear, plum, and apple orchards. Back then it was the Valley of Heart’s Delight. Today we’re all delighted—and overwhelmed—by the electronic wonders Silicon Valley churns out. Whether you’re tech obsessed or byte curious, a pilgrimage to the area’s shrines reveals the icons that transformed apples into Apple.

computer history museum, mountain view
Stroll through 2,000 years of computing, starting with the abacus and wending through IBM’s first systems, PCs, mobile tools, and Web 2.0. Among more than 1,100 artifacts, you can see the one-ton “minicomputer” invented by Digital Equipment Corp. in 1959, the original 1972 Pong game, and the trike and car that first recorded video for Google Street View. 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., (650) 810-1010, computerhistory.org.

the tech museum of innovation, san jose
Uncover the sweep of Silicon Valley’s technological evolution—and your inner visionary. You can design and “ride” your own virtual roller coaster or guide a robotic rover across the Mars landscape. In January, the museum took creation theory to a new level with the Tech Studio, allowing you to test your own prototypes and experiment with parts. AAA members get $3 off admission. 201 S. Market St., (408) 294-8324, thetech.org.

landmarks
It may not look like much, but the unassuming brown-and-green shed at 367 Addison Avenue is Silicon Valley’s Garden of Eden. Inside this Palo Alto garage in 1938, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded a little company called HP. There are no tours, but you can take pictures and read the historical marker. Nearby, at the corner of Emerson Street and Channing Avenue, a sidewalk plaque commemorates the site of Federal Telegraph Co., the birthplace of inventions that led to radio, television, and the modern electronics age. Less than five miles away in Mountain View, outside a market at 391 San Antonio Road, a sign marks the site once occupied by Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, which developed the first silicon semiconductor devices.

intel museum, santa clara
Is it hard to fathom billions of transistors on a chip the size of a baby’s fingernail? Then check out the first 4004 microprocessor (from 1971), which held 2,300 transistors, and the 3rd Generation Core processor, which holds 1.4 billion. Along the way, discover how sand is converted to silicon cylinders and then sliced into wafers, use your fingers to zoom in on a single chip, and write your name in binary code. 2200 Mission College Blvd., (408) 765-0503, intel.com/museum.

apple company store, cupertino
At the, er, core of Apple’s success lies the genius of Steve Jobs’s design vision—which may partly explain the constant crowds at the Apple Company Store, though there’s not an iPhone in sight and there are no public tours of the rest of the headquarters. The shop is, however, the only place where you can go Apple picking for logo merchandise: T-shirts, caps, mugs, and all the accessories your nonvirtual desktop can handle. 1 Infinite Loop, (408) 974-5050, apple.com/companystore.

Photography courtesy of Don Feria

This article was first published in March 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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Request the Northern California TourBook and San Francisco Bay Region map at AAA.com or any AAA branch. To find a place to stay, visit AAA.com/hotels.

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