Here's an easy wager to win. We'll bet something you're using at this very moment was invented at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. Xerox PARC is where the first graphical user interface was invented (for the Xerox Alto) and the first Ethernet cables were connected. It's home to the first laser printer and the first WYSIWYG text editors. Adobe Systems? Ubiquitous computing? Yep, those were started there, too, and whole lot more. (Now pay up.)
[ What would have happened if Steve Jobs hadn't taken his fateful tour of Xerox PARC? ]
Besides being the geek equivalent of Jerusalem, Mecca, and the mythical city of El Dorado rolled into one, PARC also delves into such arcana as context-aware computing, human-machine interfaces, and biomedical systems, to name but a few. In other words, don't even think about trying to get in without a VIP pass, though a regular Thursday lecture series is open to the public.
The fight over what shrine deserves the title as "the birthplace of the digital computer" is a holy war with no end in sight. But the folks at Iowa State's Ames Lab can make a pretty strong theological argument. This is where John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry built the first electronic digital computer between the years 1937 and 1942.
The Atanasoff Berry Computer (or ABC) was the first machine to incorporate binary arithmetic, regenerative memory, and logic circuits, beating the University of Pennsylvania's ENIAC machine by a couple of years (and beating it again in a 1973 patent dispute). In 1997, researchers at the Ames Laboratory built a working replica of the ABC, which is now on display in the lobby of Iowa State's Durham Center for Computation and Communication.
Needless to say, the supporters of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) have a slightly different take; they'll argue the machine -- whose initial task was to crunch numbers for H-bomb designers -- is the first electronic system that is "Turing complete," meeting the requirements for modern computers laid out by Alan Turing (see Tech mecca No. 5: Bletchley Park, England). To commemorate the ENIAC's 50th anniversary in 1996, Professor Jan van der Spiegel and his students at the University of Pennsylvania built a functional replica of the original machine -- which contained more than 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighed over 30 tons -- on a single chip less than a quarter of an inch square. Check out the Java-based simulation.
Ecumenical tech pilgrims will probably want to visit both.