Chip history at Intel museum

Intel's well-known, society-changing chips aren't the only source of impressive memories at this company. What began as a volunteer project has grown into a 10,000-square-foot multimedia museum, which reopened on Friday

Intel's well-known, society-changing chips aren't the only source of impressive memories at this company.

Chip king Intel is like most high-tech firms: too busy setting a rapid pace developing products to reflect much on its past. But in 1980, only a dozen years into the company's existence, longtime employee Jean Jones urged company executives to preserve Intel's history.

What began as a volunteer project has grown into a 10,000-square-foot multimedia museum, which reopened Friday in a new location at corporate headquarters. Housed in the Robert Noyce Building, named in honor of the Intel co-founder who died in 1990, the museum features many hands-on exhibits, a classroom, historical photos, and some 45,000 computer chips.

Jones, who was secretary to Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, scrounged the first museum artifacts from fellow employees and her own garage stash of souvenirs. The first museum opened in 1983 for the company's 15th anniversary, but it has grown through the years, and the new museum is much more extensive.

The most striking aspect of the exhibits is their dramatic illustration of how the industry has evolved in 31 years.

For example, Intel started producing chips from two-inch silicon wafers, then grew them to eight-inch wafers, which were long in use. Today, the plants are converting to 12-inch wafers. A sample of each is on display.

In 1968, Intel's revenues were $2,672; today, they top $26.3 billion. Intel's offices have grown from 25,000 square feet to a total of 27.9 miles worldwide. The number of employees has grown from 100 in 1968 to 64,500 today.

Proliferating Bunnies

Also showcased is the evolution of the head-to-toe protective gear worn by workers in fabrication plants. Also known as bunny suits, the Gore-Tex suits were popularized in 1997 by Intel advertisements featuring "dancing bunny people" in glittering lame' versions of the outfit.

The predecessor to the bunny suit was a thigh-length blue cotton smock that workers could personalize with embroidery. Peace signs and marijuana leaves were popular appliques, Jones recalls.

The current, white design is modeled by "Gort," a mannequin who has appeared in Intel's museum for several years. It takes 47 steps to get properly suited for clean-room work today, including two layers of gloves.

So what's with the "bunny" moniker?

Early versions of the suits were nylon, and looked more "bunnyesque," says Becky Raisch, the museum's visitor services manager who started working in an Intel fabrication plant 22 years ago.

"As the story goes, somebody saw a bunch of suited workers standing together and said, 'You look like a bunch of bunny rabbits,' and it stuck," Raisch says. "Now, they look more like space suits, but we still call them bunny suits."

Students who tour the Intel Museum can take home an Intel bunny doll. (And big kids can buy their bunny people dolls in the obligatory gift shop).

Hands-on History

The hands-on exhibits are clearly designed for kids. An exhibit explaining binary code invites you to push giant buttons and punch out the sequence that will spell your name in binary. You'll find explanations of how chip manufacturers convert sand into silicon, which is then made into wafers and then chips. The PC Gallery and Internet Gallery offer workstations with games, DVD movies, and quizzes.

The museum was always a part-time vocation for Jones, who retired in 1996 and now volunteers there.

Over the years, Jones has become acquainted with many pioneers of Silicon Valley and the industry. "I have so many longstanding friendships [from Intel]," she says.

Computer museums are becoming more common, as the microcomputer industry enters its fourth decade. Digital Equipment Corporation contributed much of its corporate museum to the Computer Museum in Boston. Intel has donated artifacts to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Microsoft also maintains corporate history exhibits on its campus.

Intel has become a historic site, acknowledges Andy Grove, cofounder and chairman. He says the company moved the Intel sign further into the parking lot, because "we were afraid people were going to get run over posing for pictures in the street."

Grove, along with Moore and other Intel founding staff, led some of the first guided tours at the new museum's opening. Admission is free, and the facility is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, except holidays.

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