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High-Tech Hit Parade

Intel Museum

By Loren Stein

ALTHOUGH DOCENT David Libby says they get some 250 to 600 visitors a day--especially when groups of schoolchildren swarm through--the guards and gift-shop personnel outnumbered the visitors at the Intel Museum one prime afternoon in January. This was good news as the sparse crowd left plenty of room to ogle and play with the historical remnants of the high-tech hit parade. What's also good news, especially for the growing ranks of Silicon Valley's unemployed, is that the museum is free.

Using the interactive guided tour or going solo, visitors can play with 30 interactive exhibits that trace the evolution of the computer chip industry and highlight scientific principles involved in chip production. Lucky for us (and for Intel, the world's top semiconductor manufacturer) that silicon turns out to be the most abundant element on earth except oxygen (it's the basic ingredient in common beach sand).

Another factoid: If the speed of the automobile had increased since 1971 at the same pace as the processing speed of the computer chip, we'd now be able to drive from San Francisco to New York City in fewer than 13 seconds. Hmm. While the museum is undoubtedly a slick advertisement for Intel's spectacular success, it offers some pretty cool toys and displays. A live video feed from one of Intel's 24/7 fabrication factories (called Fabs) gives real-time views of workers in squeaky-clean, noncontaminating white bunny suits transporting wafers containing hundreds of compute chips.

Visitors get to spell out their own names on a giant screen by inputting data using ASCII code as well as map the movement of a simple math problem though a giant replica of a microprocessor. "This is very creative, just awesome," commented visiting New Yorker T.J. Singh, an investment banker. Other highlights include the original MITS Altair 8800 computer (named after a planet on Star Trek), complete with blinking lights in the role later played by screens and monitors.

The museum also contains what may be the world's most complete collection of semiconductors from different eras and the devices they made possible. The coolest feature, though, may be the hands-on lab, where visitors get to see what a computer hard drive looks like from the inside and play with dozens of different computer chip sets. For those of us who don't have this stuff already lying around in the garage, a trip to the Intel Museum is a reminder of just how far we've come in a generation that has encompassed both the slide rule and the MP3 player.

Intel Museum Hours: Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm; Sat, 10am-5pm; closed Sun. Admission: Free. Intel Corporation, Robert Noyce Building, 2200 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara; 408. 765.0503. www.intel.com/intel/intelis/museum/

Favorite Local Collections

Rite of Pez-age: The Museum of Pez Memorabilia in Burlingame.

The Hole Truth: Lou's Living Donut Museum in San Jose.

Composing a Life: The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University.

Waste Not: The Garbage Museum in Milpitas.

Lofty Ambitions: The Wings of History Museum in San Martin.

High-Tech Hit Parade: The Intel Museum in Santa Clara.

History Lesson: The Japanese-American Museum of San Jose.

Beyond the Doily: The Lace Museum in Sunnyvale.

Museums: A complete guide to local museums.

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From the March 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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