The Geek Atlas: terrific tech shrines that every geek should see

This new book outlines the best places in the world for nerds and geeks to visit before they die. We selected some favorite places, including the HP Garage, the MIT Museum, and da Vinci's last home.

  • National Electronics Museum, Linthicum, Maryland

    The [[xref:|National Electronics Museum|National Electronics Museum]] focuses on the application of electronics to defense, and has the most important collection of radar equipment in the world. The museum begins with an introduction to electronics and magnetism designed for beginners.

    Three galleries cover the history of radar, starting with British work in the 1930s through the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Second World War.

    The second radar gallery covers advances in radar to cope with the Cold War--Doppler radar was developed so that surface-to-air missiles could attack nuclear bombers, and eventually became the technology used to trap speeding motorists.

    The final radar gallery covers modern radar systems, including the AWACS rotating dome, airport radar, and a demonstration of phased array radar.

    Outside the museum are a number of large exhibits: a TPS-43 transportable U.S. radar used for ground sensing of aircraft, a TPS-70 that replaced the TPS-43, and a Nike AJAX antiaircraft radar used to steer the Nike AJAX missile to its target.

    Shown above is a Morse telegraph machine.

    Photo courtesy of the [[xref:|National Electronics Museum|National Electronics Museum]].
  • Leonardo da Vinci's Last Home, Amboise, France

    Leonardo da Vinci lived and worked for the last three years of his life in Amboise at the [[xref:|Chateau du Clos Luce|Chateau du Clos Luce]].

    He came in 1516 at the invitation of King Francois I. The king lent da Vinci the chateau and gave him a pension on which to live. Today, the chateau has been restored to its Renaissance state and contains a museum of da Vinci's inventions. It also has da Vinci's bedroom (where he lived and died) and his work room, as well as an underground passage that is said to lead to the king's nearby chateau, a passage that King Francois I used when visiting.

    While at Clos Luce, da Vinci continued painting, illustrating, and inventing, and he worked on architectural projects for the king and on irrigation systems between the Loire and Saone rivers.

    Today, the gardens of the chateau display transparent reproductions of many of da Vinci's greatest paintings and sketches, including the Vitruvian Man, depicting a naked man inside a circle and square, his legs and arms outstretched in two different positions showing the proportions of the body; also present are various reproductions of his work, including the invention pictured here, which anticipated the helicopter.

    Photo courtesy of [[xref:|Betsythedevine|Betsythedevine]].
  • Early Television Museum, Hillard, Ohio

    The [[xref:|Early Television Museum|Early Television Museum]] is dedicated to the mechanics and electronics of television.

    The museum's collection begins with the mechanical television sets of the 1920s and 1930s, which had between 30 and 60 lines (compared with 480 visible lines on a conventional NTSC TV set today). The museum's collection includes a working 1930 Baird Televisor (which originally came as a kit), and a Davin Tri Standard built from articles that appeared in "Popular Mechanics" at the end of 1928.

    The museum's collection continues with black-and-white electronic TVs made as early as 1936. It has a large collection of U.S. televisions as well as a collection of British, European, and South American sets. Many of these are in working order, as the Early Television Foundation (which runs the museum) works to keep history alive by restoring or repairing its exhibits.

    The first color television sets on display date to the early 1950s; the first two color televisions were made available to the public in 1954.

    The transmitting side of TV is not overlooked, either. The museum features a collection of cameras, monitors, and test equipment, plus another of TV tubes, antennas, and accessories. It even has a mobile TV transmission van dating from 1948.

    And no visitor should miss the chance to appear on 1930s television. The museum has restored an RCA flying spot camera, which traces a spot of light over the visitor's face to build up an image. Stand in front of this camera, and your face will appear on a working, 60-line, 1930 RCA television set.

    Shown above is a DuMont RA-103 Chatham TV, from 1947.

    Photo courtesy of the [[xref:|Early Television Museum|Early Television Museum]].
  • MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts

    It should come as no surprise that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a museum, and a good one at that.

    The major exhibitions at the [[xref:|MIT Museum|MIT Museum]] cover robotics and artificial intelligence, holography, the work of Harold Edgerton, and the education that students receive at MIT. The museum also contains an exhibition of kinetic sculptures, a hands-on lab focused on DNA, and a collection of model ships.

    MIT is well known as a center for robotics and artificial intelligence, and the museum doesn't disappoint in that respect. Many robots are on display, including Kismet (shown above), a robot that can make realistic facial expressions.

    The holography collection is simply the best in the world. You'll find an entire gallery of holograms to look at, including some (such as a woman blowing a kiss) that change as you move around them, and one featuring the [[xref:|artist Keith Haring.|]] The complete hologram exhibit is also available online at the museum's Web site, but to see the items properly you have to go there.

    [[xref:|Harold Edgerton|Harold Eugene Edgerton]]'s photographs and films, made using a stroboscope for very high-speed photography, are the most important part of the MIT Museum collection. With the strobe lights, his photography was able to stop the wings of a hummingbird in flight, study the motion of a golfer's swing, and capture a single drop of milk creating a splash. Even the pattern of smoke around a turbine blade is revealed.

    Photo courtesy of the [[xref:|MIT Museum|Robots and Beyond: Exploring Artificial Intelligence at MIT]] (photo by Sam Ogden).
  • The Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California

    Almost all major science museums around the world have sections tracing the history of the computer, but they pale in comparison to the [[xref:|Computer History Museum|Computer History Museum]].

    The museum is housed in the old Silicon Graphics headquarters (itself an iconic Silicon Valley building), which the museum bought in 2002. Silicon Graphics was once a maker of high-performance computers for graphics that made possible 1990s films such as "Jurassic Park." The design and architecture of the building speak of the extreme wealth of Silicon Valley prior to the end of the Internet boom.

    The museum is a work in progress, with as much information available online through its excellent Web site as in the building itself. But unlike many computer science museums, the Computer History Museum brings computing to life through exhibits that are explained both in general terms for the casual visitor and in glorious detail for the gearheads.

    Shown above is Bell Labs' first transistor.

    Photo courtesy of [[xref:|The Porticus Centre|The Porticus Centre]].
  • So Many Places, So Little Time

    I seldom own a book that makes my fellow geeks here at PC World go wild when I show it to them, but John Graham-Cumming has done the trick with "[[xref:|The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive|The Geek Atlas]]," available in both dead-tree and digital formats.

    After getting permission from O'Reilly, his publisher, to feature the book in a slide show on, I passed "The Geek Atlas" around the office, soliciting advice on which locations to feature. I had room for 10 to 12 choices. I got back yellow stickies on more than 50 described in the book.

    In this slide show, I've concentrated on technology centers, which didn't give me room to discuss such fascinating places as the Sound Mirrors of Dungeness, England; The Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany; or The Escher Museum of The Hague, Netherlands--among many other places described that have more of a science or art bent to them.

    Here's just a sampling of the contents of this clever book, which not only gives you a description, photo, and Web site URL for each location but also supplies the longitude and latitude so that you can pinpoint exactly where in the world each place sits.

    Let's start with the World War II code breakers of the United Kingdom.
  • Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan

    The name Henry Ford immediately evokes images of the Model T, but Ford built more than cars. In Dearborn, Michigan, he constructed an enormous history museum with a fascinating collection of scientific and technological exhibits alongside American cultural artifacts.

    The Henry Ford consists of a museum and an entire village of houses; because of the size of the site, carefully planning your visit is worthwhile. The [[xref:|Henry Ford's Web site|Henry Ford's Web site]] has interactive tools for deciding what to visit and where to find objects of interest.

    The museum contains entire homes and laboratories that were moved to the Henry Ford and put on display. The most interesting of these are the bicycle shop and home of the Wright Brothers and the reconstruction of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory. You'll also find Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House prototype, a circular home made entirely of aluminum that could be delivered on a truck and was designed to be energy- and space-efficient.

    Of course, the museum also has an extensive collection of cars and car-related memorabilia (including the neon sign used to illuminate the first McDonald's fast-food restaurant). The museum also has a model of the (happily) never-created Ford Nucleon nuclear-powered car, and you have the chance to take a ride in a restored Model T.

    Shown here is the Ford Quadricycle.

    Photo courtesy of [[xref:|DougW, Wikimedia Commons|DougW, Wikimedia Commons]].
  • Bletchley Park, Bletchley, England

    Draw a straight line between the British universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and halfway between the two you'll find the grand house at [[xref:|Bletchley Park|Bletchley Park]].

    This is the spot where the brightest code-breaking minds in the country gathered to work during World War II. Those who labored at Bletchley were recruited for their skill at mathematics, crossword puzzles, bridge, and languages.

    They labored in total secrecy, and at the end of the war authorities hid and destroyed their work to prevent discovery. It was not until the 1970s that the secret work of Bletchley Park was revealed and its role in the Allied triumph in the Second World War was understood, including the group's success in breaking the code used for almost all Nazi communications, the Enigma.

    After the group broke the code, everything--from missives sent by Nazi infantry units to the most secret messages transmitted between Adolf Hitler and his high command--was readable.

    The Enigma Cipher Machine is on display with other decoding equipment, as well as technology related to predigital computing, pocket calculators, personal computers, air-traffic systems, and the beginnings of the electronic office with massive mainframe computers.

    The aim of the displays is to show working machines and to explain their significance.

    Photo courtesy of the [[xref:|National Education Network|National Education Network]].
  • HP Garage, Palo Alto, California

    When Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard decided to "make a run for it" and try to build their own business, they found a house for rent, complete with a garage, in Palo Alto. Dave Packard and his wife, Lucile, lived in the ground-floor apartment, and Bill Hewlett got to tinker in the garage and sleep in a shed.

    Hewlett and Packard's first product was a simple audio oscillator, dubbed the Model 200A to make it sound as if the newly formed Hewlett-Packard (or HP) had been in business for a while. The Model 200A undercut and outperformed other oscillators on the market, and Walt Disney became an early, happy customer. The cheap audio oscillator was assembled in the garage, with the paintwork for its case baked on in the oven tended by Lucile Packard. Lucile also worked at Stanford University to help support the startup, and in the evenings she did all the domestic work and handled Hewlett-Packard's correspondence and bookkeeping.

    In 1989, the house at 367 Addison Avenue was dedicated as the [[xref:|Birthplace of Silicon Valley|HP Garage Timeline]]. In 2000, the Hewlett-Packard company bought it and restored the house, the garage, and the shed. The HP Garage is not open to the public, but is easily photographed from the street.

    Photo courtesy of [[xref:|Ger Muller, Wikimedia Commons|Ger Muller, Wikimedia Commons]].
  • Akihabara Electronics District, Tokyo, Japan

    In the aftermath of the Second World War, the area around the Sobu main railway in the Kanda district of Tokyo became the center of a thriving black market in radios and radio equipment such as vacuum tubes.

    [[xref:|Akihabara|Akihabara]]'s position close to the docks where goods were flowing into Japan up the Kanda River, and to what is now Tokyo Denki University (where electrical manufacturing was being taught), made its backstreets an ideal spot for trade in all types of electrical equipment.

    Prior to the war, Akihabara was already a trading spot for many types of goods, but the explosion in demand for electronic gadgets made it what it is today: an enormous shopping area for everything from useless gizmos to the latest must-have electronics. Akihabara's shops range from enormous department stores on the main street, Chuo Dori Avenue, to backstreet stalls with secondhand goods and spare parts.

    Photo courtesy of [[xref:|Jmho, Wikimedia Commons|Jmho, Wikimedia Commons]].
  • Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine

    "The Geek's Atlas" doesn't feature only technology sites. A good portion of the book is dedicated to scientific sites, and none is sadder than the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

    On April 26, 1986, in the middle of the night, a steam explosion tore the roof off reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The reactor did not have a containment building, so the explosion exposed the reactor core directly to the atmosphere.

    The reactor was operating at the time of the explosion, and the graphite blocks that surrounded the reactor fuel were red-hot. With the addition of oxygen from the atmosphere, the graphite began to burn fiercely. To make matters worse, the fuel in the reactor was close to the end of its useful life and was filled with a wide variety of radioisotopes.

    Between the explosion and the fire, the [[xref:|Chernobyl disaster|Chernobyl disaster]] was the worst radiation accident in history. It led to the evacuation of the nearby town of Pripyat (where the photo of the abandoned Ferris wheel, above, was taken), 56 deaths, and a large increase in cancer deaths among the most highly exposed people. Ultimately a 30-kilometer exclusion zone was created around the reactor, and the population within the zone was ordered to leave. More than 350,000 people had to be relocated.

    Radioactive fallout from the reactor fire contaminated a wide area. The radioactive plume spread across Belarus and on to Finland and Sweden, across northern Europe and into North America. Today, around 5 million people live in parts of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia affected by radioactive fallout.

    It is possible to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on specially organized tours.

    Photo courtesy of [[xref:|Matti Paavonen, Wikimedia Commons|Matti Paavonen, Wikimedia Commons]].
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