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Dotted with vestiges of history

Jayashree Chatterjee |

Are you planning a trip to California because you have family in the Silicon Valley city of Palo Alto? You have a very interesting holiday to look forward to because the city is full of both natural beauty and places that are connected to the world of electronics. The original name of Palo Alto and the region south of it was Valley of Heart’s Delight because of its orchards and lush greenery.

With the coming of the electronics industry, however, its days of being the hub of a fruit hub changed dramatically. In fact some people claim that Palo Alto is the birthplace of the electronics industry because it is the home of the HewlettPackard Garage. Perhaps the first place you want to visit in this city is El Palo Alto, which in Spanish means “tall tree”. It is a towering sequoia that stands on the banks of the San Francisquito Creek. The 1987 plaque in front of it reads, “this significant tree” is recognised in “this bicentennial year as having lived here at the time of the signing of our constitution.”

The San Francisquito Creek is a lovely place for a leisurely stroll. The treelined trail for joggers and walkers gives one a wonderful sense of refuge from the main road and traffic outside. Another paradise for nature lovers is the Foothills Park, which lies in the Los Altos hills of Palo Alto. Amid the undulating hills lies a lake where you can go rowing, and on the hills are various trails that afford beautiful views of Stanford and the nearby areas. At strategic points there are telescopes for general use, and while looking through them, you may hear a rustling sound near your feet — it is caused by little lizards that scuttle around in the foliage.

Further down the trail, deer, some with antlers, stroll around, and bobcats and coyote are also visible. The Baylands Nature Preserve is another lovely area to walk, jog or cycle in. Bounded by Mountain View and East Palo Alto, these marshlands used to be a source of food (fish, small mammals and waterfowl) for the Native Americans. Visitors can go bird watching and boating with non-motorised crafts, apart from nature walks and programmes on ecology. Visitors who want a quieter, smaller place to sit and enjoy nature should go to Gamble Gardens. This 2.5 acre rose, iris and herb garden is the property of Elizabeth F Gamble, granddaughter of the cofounder of Procter and Gamble. But the site that gives you a taste of Silicon Valley itself is the HP Garage, where David Packard and William Hewlett worked on the audio oscillator.

They called their model the 200A and sold it to Disney. The company encouraged them to make some changes that led to their creation of the 200B model — and there was no looking back after that. The HP Garage is at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto. Unfortunately, visitors can look at the garage and the house from the street outside but cannot enter. HP has done the place up to look as it did when Hewlett and Packard worked there from 1938 to 1940.

There are work benches and tools in the garage, the small shed next door, where Hewlett lived, has a bed and a table, and the house, where Packard and his wife lived, is furnished in the late 1930s style. The person who is credited with introducing silicon to Silicon Valley is William Shockley, the physicist who, together with two other Bell Labs staffers, made the first transistor in 1947.

He set up his Semiconductor Laboratory in nearby Mountain View in 1956, and encouraged his researches to use silicon when making transistors. Later, eight of his researchers (two of whom then went onto form Intel) broke away, and formed the Fairchild Semiconductor Company. At this company, the researchers experimented further with these products and made commercially successful silicon transistors, for which IBM placed the first big order. The marker at the site of the Fairchild Company says that Dr Noyce “invented the first integrated circuit that could be produced commercially” and that Noyce’s earlier invention of “a complete electronic circuit inside a small silicon chip brought profound change to the lives of people everywhere.” Also instrumental to creating Silicon Valley was Stanford University, whose electrical engineering department has always enjoyed a great reputation.

In the 1940s, Stanford’s Professor Frederick Terman, dean of engineering, motivated students to start businesses and connected them with other entrepreneurs. In fact, it was he who suggested to Hewlett and Packard that they should start their electronics company in the area. He also helped in the creation of the Stanford Industrial Park, which is now known as the Stanford Research Park.

As a result of all this, Stanford produced the founders not only of HP, but also of Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Yahoo and Google. Today, interested visitors can take a tour of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center or SLAC, which saw the beginning of the work on quarks, and the place where three Nobel Prize winners did their research. The other institution that a computer addict would want to visit is Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center whose outstanding research is well known in the world of electronics. While tours are not available, almost every Thursday there is a speaker event that is open to the public. Stanford University itself is a lovely place to visit. The main building, with its huge, unadorned thick walls in the colour of sand, and pierced by arches, was built in the late1800s and presents a very pleasing picture indeed.

The Rodin sculptures near the main entrance are an attraction that one would not want to miss, and there are more sculptures at the Cantor Arts Center, which together with the Anderson Collection, is home to some lovely art exhibitions. The Cantor Rodin sculptures are the largest number of Rodin sculptures in a single museum in North America, and include pieces like The Gates of Hell and its many attendant works such as The Thinker.

In the Asia gallery, I was delighted to see a sculpture from West Bengal, a 12th century stone statue of Vishnu flanked by Lakshmi and Saraswati. Book lovers would want to visit the site where Ken Kesey, author of the American classic One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest once lived. Kesey was a student of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, and took part in an army-sponsored experiment in hallucinogenic drugs. Later, he worked as a night aide at the psychiatric ward of a VA hospital. All this gave him the material for his book.

Today, most of the old cottages have been pulled down and replaced by modern houses, but still it is fun to walk past the site where Kesey’s cottage once stood. For me, the time to bid farewell to the city came too soon but I left feeling that my visit had been a very satisfying one indeed.