Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The first Google Computer

I arrived in the USA on July 16, on a month long visit. The primary motive being a pilgrimage (Science Yatra?) of some of America’s sites of scientific achievements. It has turned out to be more about other kinds of fun and a diverse and delightful culinary experience (more on this later, though I have been flooding Facebook and WhatsApp with photos and descriptions), until yesterday, Monday the 27th of July when I took campus tour of Stanford University.

The first few days in Los Angeles were arranged by my brother Jayaram. These were primarily visits to amusement parks like Sea World, Disneyland and Universal Studios, where mind-boggling technology served art and sensory delights, and the science lay subtle, subdued and subcutaneous, except perhaps to curious and prepared minds.

The best laid plans of Mice and men

My plans to visit the Griffith Observatory and a couple of museums in Los Angeles were defeated because a car rental agency said they would rent me a car – they would accept my Indian driver’s license, if I had a major credit card, but my debit card was not good enough. Since I could not get a credit card in time, and did not want to risk the same problem at other airports or cities, I had to radically modify my planned tour. More on this, too, later. In light of this, it seemed that I lucked out by NOT preparing and scheduling and booking plane tickets and hotels to all the cities I originally 
intended to visit!

I drove around the campus of the University of California, Berkeley on Thursday. The plan was to visit the Lawrence Hall of Sciences, on Kathie Brobeck’s recommendation, but it turned out to be primarily a children’s exhibit, and I was short on time – similar to those I have seen in Seattle at the Pacific Science Center and in Madras, at the Birla Planetarium, so I skipped them. But they had a wonderful DNA model, in metal and plastic, in their parking lot. Lawrence Livermore lab is not open to the public and there seemed to be no public tour of the UC campus during my visiting period.

I don’t know if Texas A&M University which I attended from 1991-94 offered a campus tour then. My greatest regret there is not having glimpsed Norman Borlaug, who was Professor Emeritus there. But my interests were primarily in computer science then particularly in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, so I never took proper advantage of being in a large diverse university.

I also had a fantastic docent (her name: Coley) guided tour of the San Francisco Botanical Gardens in the Golden Gate park. More about this, too, later.

Stanford University

Fortunately Stanford offers a daily tour at 11am and 3:15pm and needs no registration, just a walk-in (or drive in). Such a large number of people turned up that we were divided into four groups, and led and guided by enthusiastic and knowledgeable student volunteers. Our guide, Andrew, a Mechanical Engineering graduate, talked (or bragged!) about sports at Stanford, a brief history of the university, its diversity and accomplishments, its current president Hennesy (one of my heroes, he said), the Engineering Departments, the food on campus, the architecture, its church, and how much he loved the University.
On the Stanford University Campus tour

One of the things he mentioned was that the first Google computer was kept in the JenHsun Huang building. This is the server that hosted the website http://google.standford.edu (its founders Brin and Page were PhD Students at Stanford before they started the company). They built the server and put it in a casing of Lego blocks, which Andrew described as “less than ideal for thermal dissipation.” Of such kludges are innovations made. And history! 

Jayaram and I went back after the tour ended, to see this First Google Server, which was sitting innocuously in a glass case, with a decsriptive text on glass, designed to defeat photography.

The first Google Computer
Closeup - Side view : Legos on top
First Google server Closeup : Front View

JenHsun Huang Engineering Center, where first Google server is exhibited

After a brief visit to the Hewlett Teaching Center and Packard Engineering building, which also had interesting memorabilia, we also visited the historic garage where, some claim, Silicon Valley started. More on this too, later.

I hope I can visit something related to Ben Franklin in Philadelphia and the Edison museum in New Jersey, though most likely I will have to confine myself to Washington, DC.

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