How Arc Alley became Silicon Valley

Yesterday I attended one of those very rare talks where I actually wished the talk continued after it had finished. In our thursday PARC forum, Stanford professor (double E) Thomas Lee gave an excellent (pre-)historical overview of how this place became what we know it’s today. He pointed out that the combination of young, nerdy inventor/engineers and venture capital isn’t a recent (post-HP and Fairchild) thing but essentially was in place already in the early 1900’s. Idem for the nonconformist west coast culture of doing things and business.
From the abstract:

“Most technology histories of this region mark ‘time zero’ as the birth of Hewlett-Packard on 1 January 1939. Then Shockley arrives in 1955. Three years later, the IC gets invented, and the history of Silicon Valley unfolds in earnest. Stanford and Berkeley are somehow involved in Important Ways, orchards disappear, spinoffs beget spinoffs, and boom and bust cycles of ever-increasing amplitude appear as constant companions.
What’s less well known are the many other important tech milestones that precede “time zero” of the standard story: – First ship-to-shore wireless communications in the U.S. (from the Cliff House in San Francisco, in 1899); – First regularly scheduled radio broadcasts (by Stanford dropout “Doc” Herrold), from San Jose; – First ground-to-aircraft radio, demonstrated at the Tanforan racetrack in San Bruno; – First VC-funded electronics startup (Federal Telegraph, founded by Stanford graduate Cyril Elwell, with funding from Stanford president David Starr Jordan and others; it counted among its employees future “Father of Silicon Valley” Fred Terman, and first Stanford EE PhD and future Berkeley EE dept. chair Leonard Fuller); – Discovery of electronic amplification by Lee de Forest at Federal Telegraph in Palo Alto; – First megawatt-level continuous wave transmitters (using arc technology, by Federal Telegraph); – First demonstration of electronic television, by Philo Farnsworth at his San Francisco lab on Green Street.
The talk will begin with a quiz (“Who really invented radio?”) to prime the pump, and end with a light-speed overview of developments after Farnsworth, up to the founding of Fairchild.”

He argued that the California gold rush of 1849 and subsequent years most likely is responsible for the failure-tolerant culture of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley (or, ‘Arc Alley’ in the pre-silicon days, as Lee dubbed it) – after all, when panning for gold, failure is the norm, success the unexpected strike of luck. The boom and bust cycles (of increasing amplitude) are also nothing new. One can argue about some of his points but I particularly appreciated the fact that Lee turned out to be a great and entertaining speaker, providing shitloads of good anecdotes, offering exactly the relief I needed after a boring day of droning in the lab – work keeps me pretty busy these days, hence my slacking in updating this blog.


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