The Valley’s built environment is largely a picture of post-war suburbia. But ho-hum midcentury architecture aside, the 1950s did launch the Valley’s rise to power as a center for cutting-edge technology and innovation. What happened here in the post-war years is the hidden history.
In the mid-20th century, the Santa Clara Valley was transformed. The orchards in the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” were plowed over. Silicon replaced apricots. People grew infatuated with technology and its promise. Partnerships formed between universities and industry. Risk-taking became core to the business culture.
And what first set everything in motion was one powerful force: the Nazi threat of World War II.
Breakthroughs in technology originate with breakthroughs in basic science, but when WWII broke out America had a lot of catching up to do. In 1941 there was no National Science Foundation, no National Institutes of Health, and relatively few federal dollars flowing into research universities. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, Vannevar Bush, a public intellectual and America’s top scientist, mobilized science and engineering talent from across the country. Bush recruited scientists to the state-of-the-art labs of Harvard and MIT, and these became the epicenters for designing and deploying the new tools of war.
Meanwhile, Stanford University wasn’t even in the picture. In 1941, Stanford didn’t have a strong engineering school like the east coast giants. Sure, it had a reputation for warm weather and decent liberal arts, but not for science.
Fred Terman would change all of that. A Stanford professor and Palo Alto native, Terman was recruited to work on radar technology at MIT. He oversaw a team of hundreds whose anti-aircraft technology was vital to the war effort.
In the space of a few years, America developed incredible technological prowess, culminating in the atom bomb. And after the war, it was clear to the leaders in DC that America must remain at the forefront of great science. The partnership forged between the federal government and the research universities was redirected to create technologies to beat the new enemy: the Soviet Union. The war of technology remained.
Terman read the tea leaves, and returned to Stanford with a plan that would change the university forever. As the new Dean of Engineering, he lured top talent from the east coast to California. He encouraged his students to start companies by appealing to their sense of patriotism. He laid the groundwork for developing the Stanford lands, which eventually led to Stanford Industrial Park and Stanford Research Park. (SRP is still the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard, among others.) He also encouraged William Shockley to come west and start Shockley Semiconductor.
It was at Shockley Semiconductor where Bob Noyce and the rest of the “Traitorous Eight” forged a collaboration that eventually led to Fairchild Semiconductor, the start-up that perfected the silicon transistor. The miniaturized electronics industry was born, and the sleepy, bucolic Valley of Heart’s Delight was reincarnated as Silicon Valley.
Looking back, these middle-aged white men in suits with pocket-protectors and packs of Lucky Strikes may not seem to have much in common with the hoodie-clad geeks and hipsters in skinny jeans strutting around Silicon Valley today. But during the midcentury, these entrepreneurs and risk-takers instilled in Silicon Valley a deep faith in technology as the key to making the world a better place. That deep-seated belief and entrepreneurial spirit became woven into the Valley’s DNA, which not only persists, but is stronger than ever.
Daniel Swain, Steve Blank, Margaret O’Mara, Leslie Berlin.