Historians Weigh Forces That Shaped Silicon Valley

Historians in the News
tags: technology

Which of many factors was most responsible for the postwar rise of Silicon Valley? Was it the unleashing of investment capital? Cold War-era military spending? Immigration policy, the rise of the counterculture, or even the decisions of Stanford University administrators? The historians Leslie Berlin and David M. Kennedy pondered these questions and persistent myths like that of the “lone inventor” at an event celebrating Berlin’s new book, “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.”

On November 13, 2017, the Bill Lane Center for the American West and Stanford Libraries hosted Leslie Berlin in conversation with David Kennedy. Berlin serves as Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives housed within Stanford Libraries, and has held this position since completing her PhD in History at Stanford in 2001. Kennedy, who is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus, as well as Director Emeritus of the Bill Lane Center, served as her doctoral advisor. To Berlin, he said, “It’s a great honor for me to be here with you, and to see that a former student is doing so very, very well.”

The conversation centered on Berlin’s new book, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age, which focuses on seven individuals who were prominent figures in the development of five industries – personal computing, video games, biotechnology, modern venture capital, and advanced semiconductor logic – that define Silicon Valley today. Within the span of seven years in the 1970s and 1980s and within a thirty-mile radius, Berlin argues, these men and women transformed the world.

Kennedy framed the conversation by discussing Rochester, New York, which lies near the Erie Canal. Once considered one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels, the Erie Canal became obsolete within years, and is now the site of a recreational bike path. In the years immediately following World War II, Kennedy noted, Rochester was a major technological center, the home of Polaroid and Eastman Kodak. He showed photos of Rochester today – postindustrial, in decline. Kennedy challenged the audience to imagine the same for Silicon Valley in 100 years, suggesting the image of self-driving vehicles passing the empty shells of tech companies along Highway 101. “Most historical eras do come to,” Kennedy said, “if not a conclusion, a cadence.” The big question of Berlin’s book, as Kennedy saw it, is this: “Why did Silicon Valley take root in this particular place at the particular time that it did?”

Berlin’s book opens in 1969, when, in her words, “Silicon Valley still wasn’t called Silicon Valley.” She briefly spoke to the Valley’s agricultural history, noting that at that time, the area was known as the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” and primarily consisted of stone fruit orchards. In 1969, Hewlett-Packard was already 30 years old, and microchip companies were in their second generation, yet, as Berlin described it, technological industries operated mostly “gearhead-to-gearhead” – microchip companies would sell to microchip users. “The notion of a computer was almost entirely abstract,” Berlin explained, “or it was something like HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey.” No one could imagine having one in their home. Berlin shared the image of the first personal computer she could find – the Honeywell Kitchen computer, advertised in the 1969 Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue alongside other impractical items such as baby elephants. The computer cost $10,600, or $70,000 in today’s dollars. Within decades, Silicon Valley made the personal computer concrete, affordable, and ubiquitous. Berlin’s mission in Troublemakers was to trace the transformative forces in this interval….

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