There’s no question that the San Francisco Bay Area – including Silicon Valley, of course – is the technology capital of the United States. The region produces more microchips than anywhere in the Western World. Ground-breaking engineering innovations happen here every day. Thankfully, the San Francisco region offers a number of places for the common traveler to experience and explore this technology for themselves.
Perhaps the best place for this exploration: The Exploratorium, a science-and-engineering museum founded by Frank Oppenheimer in 1969. The museum moved into new digs on Piers 15 and 17 earlier this year, and now has exhibits about everything from electricity to magnetism. Visitors can learn about these heady concepts by practicing them first-hand. Just ask my daughters. When we took our girls there this spring, both enjoyed making crazy sculptures with metal washers on giant and super-strong magnets. The baby also liked a sound exhibit that encourages visitors to bang on a bunch of xylophones (Which she did. Incessantly.).
Building with blocks at San Francisco’s Exploratorium
Farther south, in the heart of Silicon Valley, other options introduce visitors to technology from a number of different angles. First, the free museum at Intel headquarters in Sunnyvale gives visitors an inside look at the process behind manufacturing Intel processors, as well as an abbreviated look at the history of microprocessing in general. No, this place isn’t exactly for younger kids, but older children (and those who have a knack for technical stuff) will love the insider information and some of the old technologies on display. Personally, my favorite exhibit was the keypad that enabled me to spell my name in binary code.
Viewfinder Tip: Step inside a Street View vehicle to experience Google Maps first-hand.
History lessons at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View are a bit broader; instead of focusing on one type of processor from the late 1900s, exhibits here date back even farther, to precursors of the modern computer from nearly 2,000 years ago. Collections here also include some of the first modern-day computers, which date back to the 1940s and 1950s. The museum also boasts a great exhibit that spotlights the Google Maps with Street View program, and offers up the chance to sit inside a Street View vehicle to get a sense of how it works. Not surprisingly, this exhibit was funded in a large part by Google, which is based just up the road.
Finally, at the Technological Museum of Innovation in San Jose, geeky is cool. A handful of interactive exhibits enable visitors to experience first-hand some of the latest and greatest technologies of our time. On our recent visit, we planned to spend three hours and stayed for six. I loved the Tech Studio, where I spent way too long fiddling with 3D printers and digital fabrication. My older daughter, on the other hand, preferred the Tech Test Zone, where she was able to test out gestural interface technology and use body movements to dive into a 1 billion-pixel photograph of Yosemite Valley.
Of course we all appreciated the Tech Exploration Gallery. Here, we were able to step on an earthquake simulator (dubbed a “Shake Platform”) to get a sense of a pretty sizable earthquake. All things considered, I like to consider this experience a training session. While we haven’t lived through a Big One yet, hopefully those 60 seconds prepared us for when we do, and we’ll all know how to react when it counts most.
What are some of your favorite tech museums?