Travel Story Visiting California's Silicon Valley: 'Ten years ago, this wasn’t here'

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

The global centre of technology and innovation makes a surprisingly compelling destination.

“Is Silicon Valley still there,” quipped a friend when I returned home from possibly the most famous valley in the world.

With Facebook undergoing more scrutiny by the day and the #DeleteFacebook hashtag trending, my friend was hinting at a future without the tech companies that have come to dominate our lives.

But I assured him that Silicon Valley, just south of San Francisco, is alive and well. And for a place largely bereft of physical beauty, the global centre of technology and innovation is a surprisingly compelling destination.

I began my visit by checking into the Residence Inn by Marriott in Cupertino, part of the new Main Street development, a mixed-use area  carefully curated into a distinct neighbourhood.

Main Street developer and Residence Inn owner Peter Pau described the frenzied pace of change in Cupertino and the entire valley over dinner on my first evening at Alexander’s Steakhouse. 

“Ten years ago, this wasn’t here,” he told me. “This piece of land was an apricot orchard. It’s happened so fast nobody believed it.”

The transformation from rural to urban has been so complete that most visitors wouldn’t know this valley by its Spanish name — Santa Clara — named by Franciscan missionaries in 1777 for Saint Clare of Assisi, or that it was later nicknamed the Valley of Heart’s Delight for its subtropical climate, fertile soil and agricultural output.

Imagine, if you can, a valley with almost eight million fruit trees, their blossoms “blanketing the landscape” each spring. And a valley so productive it supported 18 canneries, 13 dried-fruit packing houses and 12 fresh fruit and vegetable shipping companies. That was the Santa Clara Valley in the early 20th century, according to an article on the website of the San Jose Public Library.

Driving through the valley the next day it’s hard to picture any of that. Orchards have been replaced with beige buildings and multi-lane highways. More recently, tech giants such as Apple, Google and Facebook have begun creating architecturally designed “campuses” that reflect their corporate personalities.

“Apple is extremely secretive,” says tour guide Sharon Traeger as we pass the company’s new multi-billion dollar building dubbed the “spaceship” for its likeness to a flying saucer. “Apple doesn’t give tours,” she adds, advising the best views are from the second storey of Apple’s visitor centre, across the street.

We’ll visit the visitor centre later, but first we head to the Intel Museum. En route, Sharon quickly recaps how Silicon Valley came to be.

She begins with the story of William Shockley, who shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1956 for inventing the transistor. Soon afterwards, he gave up his job at Bell Labs in New Jersey and moved across the country to the Santa Clara Valley where he founded Shockley Semiconductor.

Shockley may have been a genius but he couldn’t manage people, and eight of his brightest employees eventually left to form their own company. At Fairchild Semiconductor they developed the first silicon transistor. Why silicon? “It’s sand, it’s plentiful, it conducts electrons,” Sharon explains, adding that “over 70 per cent of companies in Silicon Valley can trace their roots back to Fairchild.”

Intel was one of those. When co-founder Robert Noyce discovered he could put more than one transistor on to a single silicon chip it was a turning point. In 1971, Intel launched the “4004”, the world’s first microprocessor with 2300 transistors on one chip.

Intel’s other co-founder, Gordon Moore, became known for Moore’s Law, the bold prediction that every two years the number of transmitters on a chip would double. “Moore’s Law is the underpinning of Silicon Valley,” Sharon tells us. “Right now, there are two billion processors on a chip.”

Inside the Intel Museum, the “Sand to Circuits” exhibit invites visitors into a fake “fab” where chips are fabricated from silicon wafers after the silicon has been purified and processed. The fab feels super clean and sterile, with a perforated floor to circulate purified air, just like in a real fab.

The museum also features hands-on displays such as one challenging you to spell your name using the binary language of computers. Sadly, it doesn’t take long before I feel out of my depth, but tech geeks could happily spend hours here.

Moving on to Googleplex, the sprawling headquarters of Google, we walk through a colourful display of larger-than-life sculptures of food. There’s a doughnut, a gingerbread man, an eclair and other symbols from Google’s Android operating system.

Inside Google’s merchandise store, employees are preparing for a ribbon cutting. They’re launching the Commuter Trucker Jacket, designed in collaboration with Levi, and incorporating Google’s Jacquard technology. Essentially a “smart” jacket, wearers can control their phones by simply touching the sleeve cuff.

On the 20-minute drive from Googleplex to Facebook, Sharon tells us both companies offer visitors tours “but they don’t take you where anything is happening”. At Facebook, we simply pose for photos under a huge sign bearing its iconic thumb. It seems odd that a company that is all about connecting people doesn’t do more to connect with visitors.

Perhaps the most memorable stop of the morning is at Steve Jobs’ boyhood home, where he and his brainy sidekick, Steve Wozniak, worked on the first Apple computer. The rancher in Los Altos is, and was, an ordinary home on an ordinary street. Steve’s was not a privileged upbringing.

By the end of our tour, I realise I need a tech holiday; that is, a break from technology. Santa Clara may have lost its orchards but the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west are home of the oldest wine region in California, with more than 80 wineries and vineyards. I head to Picchetti Winery, the perfect counterpoint to the day, where all I have to think about is which wine to sip and which tree to sit under.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Suzanne Morphet was a guest of the Residence Inn by Marriott in Cupertino.

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