How the Valley was won: The birth of technology in Silicon Valley

Smaller and better things

Shockley would leave the electronics industry several years later, dabbling with genetics and eugenics (the study of racial differences in human intelligence) and making a variety of comments as he aged that could only be deemed xenophobic. The Traitorous Eight, meanwhile, went on to much bigger and better things. They met with Sherman Fairchild of Fairchild Camera and Instruments, based on the east coast, with a proposal to form a semiconductor company in Silicon Valley. The result was Fairchild Semiconductors.

early fairchild planar transistor
Early fairchild planar transistor

Laws tells us Sherman Fairchild invested heavily in his new company, to the tune of two million dollars – far from chump change in 1957. But that investment was to pay off in spades. Says Laws, “Sputnik (the world’s first artificial satellite) was up within months, and there was tremendous pressure to lessen payloads of American satellites through the use of transistors. And the Fairchild guys had a better way to build transistors.” Within months, Fairchild Semiconductors had introduced the world’s first integrated circuits.

“But after six months,” continues Laws, “they got feedback that there were inconsistencies in their transistors. So they came up with the ‘planar process,’ the primary method by which all modern integrated circuits are built. Before this, you could fit three or four transistors on a chip with a great deal of agony, but with this process it became much easier.”

Indeed, says Laws, it was Traitorous Eight member and Fairchild founder Jean Hoerni who likely deserved the Novel Prize Shockley received. “He was brilliant. He had a PhD in math, a PhD in physics, and he’s the one who invented the planar process that allowed transistors to be created out of silicon instead of germanium. It changed the landscape.”

To say Fairchild Semiconductors was the springboard to modern-day Silicon Valley is not far off the mark. Many of its people moved on to man other tech enterprises, and its direct spinoffs include National Semiconductor and AMD. Even today, Fairchild is in the news – relocating its head office just a few months ago to Silicon Valley after a multi-year stint in the east.

Raking muck and making names

By the mid-60s, says Laws, the Valley was as vibrant a place as you could find. “People were bubbling with ideas. Lots of companies were spinning out. The most famous is Intel, of course, which Moore and Noyce formed (in 1968) after leaving Fairchild. But there were plenty more where Intel came from.”

And then there was Walker’s Wagon Wheel.

walker's wagon wheelOpening in the 60s, the Wagon Wheel was the place for tech folk to meet and greet and chow down on a burger – said to be delicious – and of course get loose with a few cocktails. It’s gone now – closed in 2000 and bulldozed three years later – but back in the day, those cocktails and a few well-lubricated yarns were all a man by the name of Don Hoefler needed.

Hoefler, you see, was a journalist of sorts. We say “of sorts” because a journalist living in the Valley during what was arguably its most innovative time should have had plenty to write about without going all sensationalistic. But Hoefler had other ideas. Beginning in January of 1971, before Gates and Jobs had even graduated high school, he released the inaugural edition of his homebrew tab, Electronic News. And it was…juicy.

To be fair, the Electronic News wasn’t the Valley’s answer to the National Enquirer. Hoefler’s paper was, however, quite capable of going behind the scenes to the place where personalities and business meet, where insider information and rumors of corporate moves and trends form a big ball of intrigue. Laws tells us, “He was a gadfly. He’d sit at the bar and keep his ears open, and there was much trepidation amongst industry higher-ups of his newsletter.”

But Hoefler is notable for something else. There was a term making the rounds those days, a term that succinctly summarized what the Valley of Heart’s Delight had become in the days of the exploding technological revolution. It was borne from Fairchild and Shockley and Hoerni and everyone else intrinsically involved in the way man’s future with high-tech electronics would play out. That expression was “Silicon Valley,” and Hoefler, in the debut issue of his trade digest, was the first to coin it in a public forum. That he’d continue to use it would cement it into the lexicon. And as the Valley of Heart’s Delight faded into the background, its replacement achieved worldwide heights.

And then there was Moore

In 1965, future Intel boss and as revered a man as you’ll find in high-tech, Gordon Moore, postulated that the number of transistors on a chip will double approximately every two years. The magnitude of this theory, now famously known as Moore’s Law, cannot be underestimated, for it has since proven to be eerily prophetic. It tells the story of power and miniaturization, and it has set the stage for personal computers, notebooks, cell phones, iPods, space exploration, health advances, and everything else the industry has produced since.

Gordon Moore at Fairchild
Gordon Moore at Fairchild

But while Moore’s Law has certainly proven true, with staggering implications, it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell that there’s no magical formula. Indeed, according to David Laws, keeping Moore’s Law alive takes tremendous dedication, serious research, and unending hard work. Says Laws, “Gordon Moore said it was possible and engineers were beaten up for years to make it so.”

By 1972, prototypes of the first standup video games had been auditioned in Sunnyvale, California’s Andy Capp’s Tavern. The first microcomputers had been designed, and the people responsible for the modern iteration of what was now officially known as Silicon Valley were taking their first steps to fame, fortune, and technological revolution.

They’d be nothing without all that came before.

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