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.”
And the museum also welcomes the occasional piece of living Intel history. The company’s legendary early chief executive,
– 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.
If that makes you queasy, you can instead view how much weight a child could lift. If today, it’s 30 pounds, after 20 years, that super-kid could hold up an articulated lorry weighing 30,000lbs.
Likewise, the displays explain just how fast a nanosecond is (if a hummingbird flaps its wings at an already-amazing 100-200 flaps per second, consider that a microchip processes information billions of times faster, in one billionth of the timespan).
And kids and adults can see “how small is small when we’re talking about nanometres”, by zooming ever more closely into a computer chip, says Jones. You can also measure how tall you are in nanometres. Hint: even for the smallest child, it’s going to be a lot.
For adults, some of the most interesting elements in the museum will be the business history of the company and its hyper-accelerated growth, and the details of the silicon manufacturing process.
The latter begins with a wall-mounted silicon ingot, a single, spun silicon crystal weighing 270lbs (122kg) from which individual silicon wafers are sliced. Each wafer becomes home to countless individual silicon chips through a complex and highly secretive chemical and physical layering process, conducted across four-storey chip fabrication plants like Intel’s in Leixlip in an ultra-clean environment.
The successive steps are explained in detail, though without giving away the patented process, of course.
The business story is one that helped create the template for Silicon Valley’s explosive growth companies. From 1968 revenue of just $2,672, Intel grew to take in $565,874 the following year, and over $4 million by 1970. In 1984, it became a billion-dollar company. By 2000, revenue was nearly $40 billion, a testimony to the power and importance of silicon. The company’s ups and downs, and business and manufacturing challenges, are the story of the quintessential Valley company, writ large.
A history timeline dutifully notes the opening of Intel’s Leixlip plant in Ireland in 1990, widely considered by economists and historians to have been one of the most significant investments ever for the Irish economy.
But the starting point for the Intel story is a photograph of the upturned faces of the first 106 Intel (for Integrated Electronics) employees, taken in 1969, a year after Intel’s founding, from a ladder on a car. In the crowd are founders
, and new chief executive Andy Grove.
So is the youthful face of one Jean Jones, the company secretary who agreed to "temporarily" help the new company, and stayed 27 years.
“Jean Jones is the reason we have the museum. She was reading a book in the early 1980s on the history of Silicon Valley and noticed numerous inaccuracies about Intel, and she went to Robert Noyce,” says Jones.
Intel should start to document its history by saving and archiving written material and objects, the secretary argued. And Intel did.
Some of the museum’s exhibits are available to view online, at intel.com/content/www/us/en/company-overview/intel-museum.html. If you are visiting Silicon Valley, the museum is open Monday to Saturday. Jean Jones advises people to call ahead just to make sure the museum isn’t closed for a private event