Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The 12 holy sites of IT

Tech meccas: The 12 holy sites of IT

You can't call yourself a true IT pro until you've visited at least one of the "holy sites" where computing history was made
By Dan Tynan

If you really want to qualify as a member of the Geek Tribe, you have to make a pilgrimage to the holy land. Fortunately with high tech, there's not just one sacred site but dozens, says John Graham-Cumming, author of "The Geek Atlas," a guide to "128 Places Where Science & Technology Come Alive."

Graham-Cumming's guide book covers everything from where Newton's apple fell to the pub where Watson and Crick announced they'd unlocked the secret to DNA. He also has a handful of entries specific to computers.

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"If you're a computer person, the three essential places to visit are the Computer History Museum in San Jose, Bletchley Park, and the London Museum of Science," says Graham-Cumming. "At the latter you can see a working model of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, which they built using the tools available at the time. It's remarkable."

Those are hardly the only ones. We've identified the 12 most sacred places where IT enthusiasts can go to pay homage to the computing gods that passed before them -- or at least catch a peek at where some of the more exciting events in IT lore occurred. Fortunately, would-be pilgrims can do a lot of the traveling via the Web, saving wear and tear on the sandals and sackcloth.

Tech mecca No. 1: 367 Addison Ave., Palo Alto, Calif.Tech mecca No. 2: 2066 Crist Dr., Los Altos, Calif.Tech mecca No. 3: 232 Santa Margarita Ave., Menlo Park, Calif.Tech mecca No. 4: CERN -- Geneva, SwitzerlandTech mecca No. 5: Bletchley Park, EnglandTech mecca No. 6: Xerox PARC -- Palo Alto, Calif.Tech mecca No. 7: Ames Lab, Iowa State University -- Ames, IowaTech mecca No. 8: Moore School of Engineering, University of Pennsylvania -- PhiladelphiaTech mecca No. 9: IBM's "Main Plant" -- Poughkeepsie, N.Y.Tech mecca No. 10: Room 2713, Dobie Hall, University of Texas -- Austin, TexasTech mecca No. 11: Kirkland House, Havard University -- Cambridge, Mass.Tech mecca No. 12: Lyman Residence Hall, Stanford University -- Stanford, Calif.

Garageland USA: Silicon ValleyTech mecca No. 1: 367 Addison Ave., Palo Alto, Calif.Tech mecca No. 2: 2066 Crist Dr., Los Altos, Calif.Tech mecca No. 3: 232 Santa Margarita Ave., Menlo Park, Calif.

Like punk bands, some of Silicon Valley's most legendary companies started inside garages -- so many of them, in fact, you start to wonder where anybody managed to park their car.

No grease-stained shed is more famous than the one located at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif. Here in 1938, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard developed their first product, the Model 200A audio oscillator. (According to Graham-Cumming, the engineers named their first product Model 200A so that it would appear they'd been in business for a while.) Initial capital investment: $538, including a Sears Roebuck drill press owned by Packard.

One of their first customers was Walt Disney, who used the 200A in creating the soundtrack for "Fantasia." In 1989, the State of California designated the shed the official "birthplace of Silicon Valley." Eleven years later, HP -- by now a $42 billion company -- purchased the house for $1.7 million and began restoring the garage to its original 1938 state, which it completed in 2005. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. However, the garage is closed to the general public and pilgrims are discouraged from disturbing the quiet residential neighborhood.

Other notable Silicon Valley garages include 2066 Crist Drive in Los Altos, where in 1976 the Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) formed Apple Computer. Ironically, Wozniak worked for HP at the time, but the company didn't see much future in his early version of a personal computer.

And then there's the garage at 232 Santa Margarita Avenue in Menlo Park, where Larry Page and Sergey Brin worked, hot-tubbed, and raided the fridge for five months after their nascent startup, Google, outgrew their Stanford dorm rooms (see Tech mecca No. 12). The search giant bought that property from its owner (now Google VP) Susan Wojcicki for an undisclosed amount in 2006. No commemorative plaques there yet, just busloads of Google acolytes, hungry for a glimpse of history.

The nucleus of the WebTech mecca No. 4: CERN -- Geneva, Switzerland

Science disciples touring the continent have plenty of reasons to visit CERN (originally called the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, now known as the European Council for Nuclear Research) on the French-Swiss border. It's where particles come to collide, revealing the mysteries of subatomic physics. If nothing else, you may want to catch the Large Hadron Collider when it comes back online this fall, just to see if it produces a black hole that swallows up the planet.

For IT geeks, though, CERN probably holds more significance as the birthplace of the World Wide Web. In 1990, physicist Tim Berners-Lee and systems engineer Robert Cailliau devised the concept of an information system based on hypertext links (which Berners-Lee originally called the "Mesh").

On exhibit at CERN you'll find the original Web server, Tim Berners-Lee's NeXT machine. Can't afford a ticket to Geneva? Berners-Lee's March 1989 proposal for a new information management system and screen shots from the first browser can be found on the CERN Web site.

In his original proposal, Berners-Lee wrote:

We believe Tim achieved his aims.

The cure for the uncommon codeTech mecca No. 5: Bletchley Park, England

Did computers defeat the Nazis? You'll find a strong argument for the case at Bletchley Park, home to the United Kingdom's supersecret code-breaking think tank. Though breaking the Germans' communications codes relied mostly on "human" computers -- civilians recruited for their puzzle-solving prowess, as well as loftier types like author Ian Fleming and mathematician Alan Turing -- they needed machines to do much of the heavy lifting. The most famous of these: the vacuum-tube-based Colossus, one of the first programmable, binary electronic computers.

Colossus was destroyed after the war on orders from Winston Churchill, but was later rebuilt, and now stands as the premier exhibit at Britain's National Museum of Computing -- located at Bletchley -- where it continues to demonstrate how it helped break the Nazi's Lorenz cipher. If you can't make it across the pond, you can catch Hollywoodized versions of the story by renting "Enigma" (2001) or "Breaking the Code" (1996).

The fathers of inventionTech mecca No. 6: Xerox PARC -- Palo Alto, Calif.

Here's an easy wager to win. We'll bet something you're using at this very moment was invented at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. Xerox PARC is where the first graphical user interface was invented (for the Xerox Alto) and the first Ethernet cables were connected. It's home to the first laser printer and the first WYSIWYG text editors. Adobe Systems? Ubiquitous computing? Yep, those were started there, too, and whole lot more. (Now pay up.)

Besides being the geek equivalent of Jerusalem, Mecca, and the mythical city of El Dorado rolled into one, PARC is also an independent research business, having spun off from Xerox in 2002. It now delves into such arcana as context-aware computing, human-machine interfaces, and biomedical systems, to name but a few. In other words, don't even think about trying to get in without a VIP pass, though a regular Thursday lecture series is open to the public.

Separated at birth: The first computer(s)Tech mecca No. 7: Ames Lab, Iowa State University -- Ames, IowaTech mecca No. 8: Moore School of Engineering, University of Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia

The fight over what shrine deserves the title as "the birthplace of the digital computer" is a holy war with no end in sight. But the folks at Iowa State's Ames Lab can make a pretty strong theological argument. This is where John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry built the first electronic digital computer between the years 1937 and 1942.

The Atanasoff Berry Computer (or ABC) was the first machine to incorporate binary arithmetic, regenerative memory, and logic circuits, beating the University of Pennsylvania's ENIAC machine by a couple of years (and beating it again in a 1973 patent dispute). In 1997, researchers at the Ames Laboratory built a working replica of the ABC, which is now on display in the lobby of Iowa State's Durham Center for Computation and Communication.

Needless to say, the supporters of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) have a slightly different take; they'll argue the machine -- whose initial task was to crunch numbers for H-bomb designers -- is the first electronic system that is "Turing complete," meeting the requirements for modern computers laid out by Alan Turing (see Tech mecca No. 5: Bletchley Park, England). To commemorate the ENIAC's 50th anniversary in 1996, Professor Jan van der Spiegel and his students at the University of Pennsylvania built a functional replica of the original machine -- which contained more than 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighed over 30 tons -- on a single chip less than a quarter of an inch square. Check out the Java-based simulation.

Ecumenical tech pilgrims will probably want to visit both.

Where big iron was born Tech mecca No. 9: IBM's "Main Plant" -- Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

In April 1953, IBM unveiled "the most advanced, most flexible high-speed computer in the world," the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine. It, and every other IBM mainframe made for the 56 years since, rolled out the doors at the company's famed "Main Plant" in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

It was here in 1964 that IBM created its first general-purpose mainframe, the System/360 family. The S/360's interchangeable software and peripherals made it possible for businesses of almost any size to take advantage of computers, then add more powerful systems as their needs grew. It was an IBM System/360 Model 75 that helped NASA get Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and back 40 years ago. It doesn't get much holier than that.

Students who win IBM's annual Master the Mainframe Contest still get a free trip to Poughkeepsie to view the hallowed ground where IBM's iron was forged, along with lesser prizes like iPods and Linux laptops.

Dorm rooms of the rich and famous Tech mecca No. 10: Room 2713, Dobie Hall, University of Texas -- Austin, TexasTech mecca No. 11: Kirkland House, Havard University -- Cambridge, Mass.Tech mecca No. 12: Lyman Residence Hall, Stanford University -- Stanford, Calif.

If a tech company wasn't born in a garage, odds are pretty good it started in a dorm. The first and arguably most famous dorm shrine is Room 2713 of Dobie Hall, half a block from the University of Texas campus, where Michael Dell began selling computers via the mail in 1984. If you can't get to Austin to see the room where Dell Computer began, you can visit the virtual one on Dell's island in Second Life.

Touring colleges of the Northeast? Pack your beer bong and visit the third-floor suite Mark Zuckerberg shared with Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes at Kirkland House in Cambridge. That's where the three Harvard undergrads cooked up Facebook (or "borrowed" the idea, depending on your point of view) in February 2004.

Before the Google Guys opened shop in that garage (see Tech mecca No. 3: 232 Santa Margarita Ave., Menlo Park, Calif.), they started out in Larry Page's room in Stanford's Lyman Residence Hall in 1997, which housed the search engine's first server farm. (No, the Googlionaires haven't bought that yet, but give them time.)

Finally, no tour would be complete without a stop at Albuquerque Police Station, where a 22-year-old Harvard dropout named Bill Gates got detained for driving without a license, resulting in possibly the most famous billionaire mugshot ever taken.

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