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Santa Clara Valley Lives: Explore technology’s past through a local time machine

Jul 12, 2023

The Museum of American Heritage displays, among many other items, a vintage telephone from Western Electric that really had a dial for dialing calls.

Young family members have never known a world without telephones that show movies; without smart devices that talk; without internet connections that lead us on virtual journeys. Even today's young parents might have trouble remembering how the world worked back before all this life-changing stuff.

All will find answers or enjoy the look back with a visit to a local gem of a small museum in the Santa Clara Valley. Here, history is preserved with a charm that makes time travel seem possible.

The Museum of American Heritage in Palo Alto was founded by Frank Livermore, who, before his death in the year 2000, amassed a collection of thousands of inventions that presage the way we live today. At MOAH you’ll discover how people used early technology as recently as a generation ago. These gadgets that once were new are displayed in the setting of a vintage home in a quiet neighborhood.

Here, through a garden gate, you’ll find something as simple as a coffee grinder that operates with a hand crank – still practical today for use during a power outage – and something as complex as a Singer sewing machine powered by the movement of the human foot, necessary to pump the treadle that ran the machine's gears. You’ll see the first commercial microwave – a Radarange from Amana – circa 1975; a patented milk can opener (begging the question, "What is a milk can?"); and a 1958 Snoopy alarm clock that needed to be wound up to tick. There's a switchboard for a telephone exchange where the answer to "Number, please?" was needed to ring up even someone as close as a neighbor, and an electric motorcycle toy, circa 1940, created long before Elon Musk was born, much less thinking up his electric automobiles.

Did you ever hear about a time when milkmen delivered milk bottles to your door? When they did this remarkable thing, where did they set those breakable bottles for safety? Local residents will enjoy seeing a metal milk delivery box (for placement on the porch) with "Peninsula Creamery" spelled out across the tin front. Speaking of boxes, there is an ice box on display that actually required ice to keep the leftovers cool. There's also an Underwood typewriter that really typed words onto paper and a telephone where dialing a number did, in fact, require a dial.

Livermore may have started the collection, but many others have contributed to it over the years and the museum now owns more than 8,000 mechanical and electrical items from the past. These now-quirky devices are rotated through the display, with thousands more in storage in a San Carlos warehouse.

Now through Sept. 10, the museum is featuring the exhibition "Fixin’ A Meal: Vintage Food Preparation Devices and Tools." Modern chefs will enjoy the journey back to a day when even an electric toaster could look a little dangerous.

Perhaps best of all, the collection is housed in a 1907 custom-made Tudor revival home surrounded by a garden. The home was once owned by local physician Dr. Thomas Williams, one of the founders of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. His cluttered office is re-created inside, and his herb garden and iris-filled flower beds add additional context to the items on display.

Thus it is that through a garden gate visitors will catch a glimpse of the modern world of long ago. It's a delightful place to meet the predecessors of today's tech and to contemplate the obsolescence each generation finds among its own inventions as the world pursues its trips around the sun.

The Museum of American Heritage is located at 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Admission is free. For more information, visit

Robin Chapman is a journalist and historian who is a native of Los Altos.

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The Museum of American Heritage displays, among many other items, a vintage telephone from Western Electric that really had a dial for dialing calls. Robin Chapman is a journalist and historian who is a native of Los Altos. Keep it Courteous. Be Proactive. Share with Us.