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Old-Time Tech in Silicon Valley

Part Three of our steampunk tour takes us to Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Amid the office parks and corporate campuses of Silicon Valley, you can find monuments to inventions of old: The airship hangars of Moffett Field, Victorian tech in the Computer History Museum, the mechanical wonders of the Museum of American Heritage. Part One of our steampunk tour took us to attractions in San Jose. In Part Two, we explored San Jose’s Rosicrucian Park. We conclude our tour by heading northwest to Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto.

We begin at Moffett Field, a former U.S. Navy air station near Sunnyvale and Mountain View. It was constructed in the early 1930s as a base for the USS Macon, a large Navy airship. Designed as an airborne aircraft carrier, the Macon crashed off the California Big Sur coast in 1935. During World War II, Moffett Field became a base for Navy blimps and other aircraft. Today, it houses the NASA Ames Research Center and several U.S. military units. A company owned by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin manages 1000 acres of the property under a deal with NASA.

Hangar One

Moffett Field’s most prominent features are the three hangars once used for airships. Hangar One, which covers 8 acres, is one of the world’s largest freestanding structures. Due to the presence of toxic materials, the exterior panels were removed in 2011 and 2012, leaving the metal frame. Hangars 2 and 3 are among the world’s largest freestanding wooden structures.

Next to Hangar One, in Building 126, is the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum, a small facility containing exhibits, a research library and a gift shop. Among the exhibits are many airship-related artifacts, including an instrument panel, aviator garb, old newspapers, and even a sewing machine used to stitch fabric for the airship exteriors. Several historic aircraft are parked outside.

The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and people with disabilities, and $3 for kids 13-17. It’s free for active military.

To enter Moffett Field, you’ll have to show a photo ID to a guard at the gate. The main entrance is on Moffett Blvd. near U.S. 101. You can also enter through the Ellis Street gate near the Bayshore/NASA light rail station (from downtown San Jose, take the northbound Mountain View line). The address is 500 Severyns Ave., Moffett Field, CA.

Also worth seeing is the NASA Ames Visitor Center on Moffett Blvd. in front of the main entrance. Its exhibits focus on space exploration. They include a moon rock, a Mercury Redstone space capsule, and a walk-through model of the International Space Station. It’s a small facility, but there’s no admission charge. It’s open daily except for Mondays.

Victorian Computing

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View claims to have the world’s largest collection of computing artifacts. The centerpiece is “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing,” a 25,000-square-foot exhibit with 20 galleries tracing the history of computers from early calculators to networking and the World Wide Web.

Difference Engine No. 1

Attractions for steampunks include a three-quarter-scale replica of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1. Babbage conceived this automatic computing machine in the early 19th century but it was never completed. From 2008 to 2016, the museum displayed a full-sized working model of Difference Engine No. 2 that was based on Babbage’s ideas and built in 2002. The website includes extensive information about his work.

The galleries also include numerous calculators from the 19th and early 20th centuries as well as early punched-card systems. One punched-card device, the Hollerith Electric Tabulating System, was used to tabulate the 1890 U.S. Census. The “Birth of the Computer” gallery includes a German Enigma machine, used to send coded transmissions in World War II. In the “Real-Time Computing” gallery, you can see a Norden Bombsight used by American bombardiers in World War II.

The website includes a virtual tour of the exhibit with photographs.

A smaller exhibit focuses on the life and work of Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), an English mathematician regarded by some as the first computer programmer.

The museum is open daily except Mondays. General admission is $17.50, or $13.50 for students (11 or older), seniors, and active military. Admission is $6 for kids ages 8-10. The museum is located at 1401 N Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View, CA 94043, phone (650) 810-1010.

American Invention

The Museum of American Heritage (MOAH) in Palo Alto maintains a large collection of artifacts related to invention and technology from 1750 to 1950. Only a small percentage of the collection is on display. Permanent exhibits include a 1920s general store, an early 20th century kitchen, an auto repair shop, a functioning print shop, and an early 20th century California garden.


MOAH also hosts rotating exhibits featuring items from the collection. Currently on display is “In the Groove: A History of Record Players,” which includes Edison phonographs, a Seeburg jukebox, and a 19th century music box with music encoded on a cardboard disc. The exhibit runs through August 19. This fall, MOAH plans to host exhibits on antique toys and quack medicine.

The museum, which occupies a house built in 1906, is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Annual memberships start at $35 and include free or discounted admission to MOAH events. It’s located at 351 Homer Avenue, Palo Alto, CA, phone (650) 321-1004. Each July or August, the museum hosts a members-only tour of a nearby warehouse where most of the collection is stored.

A History of Lace

Finally, The Lace Museum is a small facility occupying a strip mall in Sunnyvale. It has a collection of about 10,000 pieces of lace dating from the 18th century, along with lace making tools and books. It hosts a major exhibit every four months in addition to classes and a gift shop. The current exhibit, “Figural Lace,” focuses on representations of humans and animals. It runs through October 20.

The museum is located at 552 South Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale, CA 94087, near the corner of El Camino Real and S. Sunnyvale Ave. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the third Friday of each month from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free.

Check out the sights in the photo gallery below.

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