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Photograph by Dixie Sheridan

The Way It Woz: The Los Gatos exhibit features a photo of the first Apple computer in all its clunky glory.

Grist at The Mill

From gopher traps to Pong and Pet Rocks, Los Gatos has been a hotbed for inventors

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EVER THOUGHT you'd be able to check out the world's first acoustically coupled data modem behind a glass case in a museum? Well, until April 28, you can. Dudley Warner, the fellow behind this invention in the 1960s, lived in Los Gatos at the time, and his story is part of "Grist, Gumption and Genius in Los Gatos," now on display at the Forbes Mill Museum.

The show, curated by Jade Bradbury, celebrates inventions that took place in Los Gatos, and its subtitle thoroughly rocks: Transitioning From an Agrarian Culture to an Engineering and Technology Paradigm Shift That Changed the World. The curators chose "grist" because it refers to "grist in the mill," or "something that can be turned into one's advantage." Gumption means "boldness of enterprise and initiative," and genius, as we all know, refers to exceptional creative powers.

Speaking of rocks, remember the Pet Rock? Gary Dahl came up with that idea in Los Gatos in 1975. Pet Rock paraphernalia sits behind another glass case. If that's not ironic, I don't know what is. One and a half million Pet Rocks sold in a five-month stretch, making it the most publicized novelty gift in retail history. Dahl then opened the bar Carry Nation's after cashing the first check from his success.

On the computer front, one couldn't do a show on Los Gatos innovations without mentioning Steve Wozniak and Al Alcorn. Along with Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, Alcorn founded Syzygy, which became Atari shortly thereafter. Alcorn designed the original Pong arcade game and then the home version, thus starting the video-game revolution.

Steve Jobs and Wozniak came up with the original plans for the first Apple Computers while working at Atari—or at least that's how Alcorn tells the story. Circuit boards from both the original Pong arcade game and the consumer version are on display, as is a photo of the original Apple I computer in all of its homemade brown-desk-looking glory. That photo alone is worth the entire visit.

Geoffrey Lee pioneered small-format drive technology in Los Gatos, and the show features binders filled with magazine articles and press releases from the 1970s. Some of the first PC-testing equipment also came to fruition in this little town next to the mountains. An old logic analyzer from 30 years ago is on display for your viewing pleasure.

Everyone knows about Woz and the Pet Rock, but how about Laszlo Vadas? A longtime Los Gatan, he held 62 patents, including the prototype for a pineapple-peeling machine. John Bean invented his spray pump in the late 1800s, and his company eventually morphed into what is now FMC. An old version of the pump sits in the museum with a glaring DO NOT TOUCH sign draped across it.

But it's not just about technology. John Steinbeck set up shop in the area and wrote The Grapes of Wrath while living on Greenwood Lane, which was then in Los Gatos but is now in Monte Sereno. A copy of the book is included in the show. Unfortunately missing is beat legend Neal Cassady, who also lived in Los Gatos. I guess driving backward full speed down North Santa Cruz Avenue just wasn't innovative enough for the exhibit.

Of course, not every single one of these inventions was designed inside the actual Los Gatos city limits, but each one has a connection to the City of Cats somehow. Whenever Silicon Valley is mentioned anywhere, in any context, you never really hear about Los Gatos. Instead, you get Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Cupertino and the like. It is time to give Los Gatos its due, and I hope Dahl is planning a Pet Rock 30th -anniversary party at Carry Nation's. That would be fitting indeed.


Grist, Gumption and Genius in Los Gatos runs through April 28 at the History Museum of Los Gatos, Forbes Mill, 75 Church St., Los Gatos.


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From the March 23-29, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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