Bong and chips? Silicon Valley’s Intel museum holds a deep, techno archive

The Intel jingle and artefacts of the firm’s evolution make for a compelling display

Thu, Jul 10, 2014, 01:20

You wouldn’t think the blended sound of a tambourine, an anvil, an electric spark (yes, really), a hammer striking a pipe, a xylophone, a marimba, and bells would add up to anything but cacophony.

But it’s perhaps the most instantly recognisable sound in the technology industry. Melded together, it’s what Intel calls its “bong” sound, from the Intel advertisements introduced for radio and television that began in 1994.

Legally, it’s known as the “Intel soundwave”. Conceptually, as part of the Intel Inside campaign, it revolutionised the way people thought about an abstract product, the complex microchip inside a computer, which they most likely would never even see.

But that campaign turned Intel into a well-recognised household brand rather than an anonymous supplier of parts to computer manufacturers. And because of that brand recognition, when Intel set up what it intended to be a little internal company museum for employees in the 1990s, there was very quickly demand for visits by friends and family, then, as word got out, the general public.

Now the Silicon Valley museum at Intel headquarters in Santa Clara is one of only a handful of corporate museums worldwide that is open to the public, and it’s the only public, company-run tech museum of its kind in Silicon Valley.

It is there that a visitor can learn all about the Intel bong, as well as the company’s history and the story of how Intel put much of the silicon into Silicon Valley.

“Employees wanted to bring their families through, then their friends, then it was customers, and now, it’s tour buses,” says Elizabeth Jones, manager of the Intel Museum and the company’s corporate archives. About 100,000 visitors now come through annually.

“It is unique, from what I’ve found, at least within Silicon Valley,” she says.

“It’s all about the history behind Intel, where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

And the museum may have had some influence on Ireland, too. “Guinness came over and benchmarked us when they were going to new buildings”, when setting up the Guinness Storehouse exhibit.

The Intel Museum is popular with tech aficionados as a must-see on any geek tour of the valley and, predictably, also attracts school groups, in particular, some 6,000 local seven-to-eight year olds who come as part of a formal schools programme.

“We teach them about binary code, but it also gives them exposure to Silicon Valley – we live here, but what does that mean? We also tell them about what was here before, the orchards and fields.”

Living history

And the museum also welcomes the occasional piece of living Intel history. The company’s legendary early chief executive, Andy Grove – he of “only the paranoid survive” – for example.

“Andy Grove still drops by the museum. I came in to work the other day and someone said, ‘oh, Andy’s here!’” He’d come in for a visit with some children.

The museum strikes a balance between satisfying adult and child interests. For example, how do you explain to kids Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s famous but abstract “law” from 1970 – the extraordinary productivity-to-cost fact that states that the processing power of a microchip doubles every two years, while costs drop?

That’s why, frustratingly, the device you buy today will be able to do even more in its next incarnation a year from now, while its cost stays the same or drops.

“Well, you can apply Moore’s law to how much candy you could eat in a minute,” notes Jones, pointing to one interactive display. It amusingly shows children that if today, you can eat 18 pieces, then with Moore’s law, after two years you’d be able to eat 36 pieces, in 10 years, 576 pieces, and in 20 years, 18,432.

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