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Promise of the Technology Center : San Jose Facility to Explain Computers, Jets, Space Travel

Times Staff Writer

Technology has given us computers, jumbo jets, men on the moon, cars that talk, nuclear warheads--and the Technology Center here, which is going to explain all those things.

What’s more, when this unique museum and education center opens in the fall of 1988, it’s going to explain technology complete with warts: the misses as well as the hits, the failures that led to successes.

Displays at the center will delve into myriad facets of technology: fundamentals that make it work, imperfect ends it reaches, fantasies it strives to achieve, entrepreneurship--without which the scientific discoveries that technology depends upon would slide into the oblivion of textbook pages and never reach the marketplace.

The Foundation of Technology

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Science is the foundation of technology. On that foundation, pile such building blocks as economics, engineering, personal ambition, marketing, production deadlines, logistics, competition, ethics, moods, luck, intra-company rivalries and having the right secretary . . . and you get something close to technology.

Technology is one of those words that successfully defies description. The dictionary can’t do the job, any more than it can define religion or love.

“It makes no sense to me to separate science from technology, technology from ethics or ethics from religion,” wrote physicist Freeman Dyson in his book, “Disturbing the Universe.”

What can the Technology Center do about all those diverse building blocks--and scores more--stacked on the foundation of science to create the center’s raison d’etre?

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“I don’t know how successful we’ll be,” said Jim Adams, president of the center, “but our intention is to demystify technology and give people a better sense of the process.” In other words, Adams’ intention is to define technology. Where the dictionary falls short, the Technology Center plans to step in.

Perhaps the best way to understand the steps that the center will take is to consider a scenario verbally sketched in conversation with Adams, who is known as an innovative thinker and clear talker.

He chairs Stanford University’s Program in Values, Technology, Science and Society, is a former art student and a current professor of mechanical engineering and engineering management at Stanford.

Adams has an abiding interest in technology. If you doubt it, check out his backyard, where you’ll find antique tractors that he’s restored, or visit his office, which is full of technological gewgaws ranging from a 1910 one-cylinder internal combustion engine to a turbine wheel off a General Electric jet engine.

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A Theoretical Exhibit

Here is Adams with an off-the-cuff description of a theoretical Technology Center exhibit:

“Something happens to define the problem (‘We need a cheap machine to desalinate sea water’), then we consider marketing, financing and feasibility. There is the preliminary design, a kind of thinking of ideas. Then the detail design. You tend to double back a lot. Then prototypes are made, and they usually don’t work, so there’s the development stage. Then comes the manufacturing stage. Manufacturing is very important, and it usually doesn’t get attention, though it’s starting to right now because it’s the key to the United States’ ability to compete in the world today. Then there’s sales: getting it out there. And maintenance: fixing it when it breaks. Maybe there’s disposal of waste.

“This is the technological process, and it’s messy. Science gives you understanding. Technology uses that understanding.”

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It is technology’s messy process that gets a product out of the factory door and into the marketplace. The Technology Center aims to take its visitors by the hand and guide them through the maze of that messy process.

‘More Compromise’

“Technology has more compromise than science,” Adams continued. “If you’re trying to understand the structure of the double helix, you don’t think of what engineers call trade-offs. But if you’re trying to develop a computer for a certain number of dollars in two years so you can warrantee it for a year, you’re going to compromise and give up a lot.

“When you’re time-limited and money-limited and trying to make something, you don’t have the luxury of making it last forever or work perfectly. You can’t get to the final truth.”

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Technology may not reach the final truth, but it always stretches to gain a tangible truth: something to use, something to sell.

Such stretching can be quiet and contemplative, as it usually is in the ivory towers of universities and the layered establishment that makes up much of the corporate world.

However, arriving at technology’s tangible truth frequently involves a series of battles on fronts ranging from engineering to economics. Add up the battles, and you’ll find a war, with all the personalities, armories and tactics found in military warfare. Of course, technology’s personalities belong to company executives and engineers, not generals; its armories are filled with computers, not tanks; its tactics involve selling, not killing.

It’s Warfare

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But it’s warfare, no matter how it’s cut: “There was talk of wars , shoot-outs , hired guns and people who shot from the hip . The win was the object of all this sport, and the big win was something that could be achieved by maximizing the smaller one,” wrote Tracy Kidder in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Soul of a New Machine.” Kidder was not writing about military officers plotting World War III. He was quoting engineers in the throes of designing a new computer.

The center will provide a kind of technology smorgasbord to show what develops from all that contemplation and contention. Visitors will be able to glance at exhibits and go home with a new mental packet of general ideas. But they may be seduced by the exhibits, study them in some detail, interact with them by pushing buttons and pulling levers, and depart with considerable understanding of a segment of technology, perhaps even with new ideas and philosophies.

Beyond exhibits, visitors to the center will be offered lectures, classes and seminars. Adams promises an extensive technological library and archives filled with paraphernalia, with emphasis on items from the museum’s own turf, the Santa Clara Valley.

Visiting scholars from academe, other museums and industry will be studying at the center “trying to better understand technology and associated social and economic phenomena,” Adams said. “We intend to have certain aspects of the Smithsonian, where we’ll combine public education with an attempt to better understand the material we’re presenting.”

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Display Categories

The Technology Center will divide its exhibits into such specific categories as health and medicine, defense, energy and resources, transportation and publication and information, said Eustace Mendis, the center’s executive director.

One exhibit under development will show a CAT scanner “being used in an incredibly imaginative and innovative way,” Mendis said.

The exhibit will illustrate how the scanner, which can produce a three-dimensional computer image of a patient’s body parts, helped to reconstruct half the face of a youth whose head was crushed in an accident.

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Exhibitions, like the technology they will represent, cannot remain static.

“We plan to change 15% to 20% of the exhibits every year,” said Tony Ridder, the center’s board chairman and publisher of the San Jose Mercury News. The exhibits will change in a $35-million, 250,000-square-foot building in a $10-million, 8-acre park that hugs the west bank of the Guadalupe River in downtown San Jose.

Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta last week won the commission to design the center. He triumphed over 18 architects from six countries who competed for the job.

Unobtrusive Interior

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Inside, the building’s design will be unobtrusive “so as not to compete with the displays,” said Jack Wheatley, a Palo Alto real estate developer and contractor, and a member of the center’s architectural selection committee. The interior will be “much simpler than the outside, which will be an architectural statement for the center and for the city,” Wheatley added.

Frank Taylor, executive director of San Jose’s Redevelopment Agency, spoke with great pride of the complex “in excess of 20 acres” that will include the Technology Center.

He explained how pedestrian skyways will link the Technology Center to a convention center under construction, and thence to a couple of hotels flanking the convention center. And Taylor told how, about the time the Technology Center welcomes its first visitors, a hands-on children’s “discovery museum” will open next door.

Plenty of Parking

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The redevelopment area also will include a couple of big office towers, and plenty of parking, Taylor promised.

Already in the area is a performing arts center, and plans call for a repertory theater to open about a year after the Technology Center.

San Jose’s City Council, which mounted political battle with other Silicon Valley cities for the honor and income that the center will draw, has guaranteed to provide parking, re-align streets and foot the bill for $30 million of the museum’s costs, plus whatever portion of the $10 million promised by local businessmen fails to materialize, plus $2 million a year “forever,” Ridder said, adding that “we still need to raise $35 million.”

For all that money, the center will get exhibits valued at $25 million, plus classrooms, auditoriums, work spaces, a restaurant, gift shop, lobby and public meeting rooms . . . and the chance to depict technology as it never has been shown before.

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