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

computer-chip

Robert Metcalfe is an intriguing character. He holds several university degrees, writes a nationally syndicated tech column, has for several years run a 400-acre farm in Maine, and in 1979 cofounded a little Silicon Valley business called 3Com. And one other thing – along with good buddy David Boggs, he invented Ethernet. That’s right. Invented. Ethernet.

But Metcalfe is also responsible for some of the more notable tech-centric quotes and forecasts of our time. In 1995 he prognosticated a full-blown Internet collapse for the following year. Soon thereafter, he predicted the downfall of wireless networking. Yet as wrong as he was on both counts, Metcalfe was just as right when he famously said of his long-time stomping grounds, “Silicon Valley is the only place on Earth not trying to figure out how to become Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is the world’s high-tech hub. It’s been called the Hollywood for startups, the Florence of the information age, ground zero of the technological revolution, and, simply, “a state of mind.” It’s the home of rivals like Intel and AMD, Yahoo and Google, LinkedIn and Facebook. Among many, many more.

Funny thing about the “Valley,” or at least its pioneering days as a tech epicenter: There’s a popular perception out there that Apple and Microsoft and microcomputers were there to witness its birth, in effect to cause its birth. But such a notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Fact is that long before Gates and Allen and Jobs and Wozniak were even gleams in their nerd daddies’ eyes, the Valley ultimately known as Silicon was on the move.

The ivory tower that put down roots

Once upon a time, the region south of San Francisco Bay, north of the town of Gilroy, and bordered by the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Coast Range on the west and east, was known as Santa Clara Valley, so named by missionaries. A century later it was unofficially dubbed “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” And for good reason. It was a valley, and it was filled with delights – flowers, orchards, and plants literally as far as the eye could see. An agricultural paradise, blessed with perfect growing weather and farmers more than willing to tend the fields. And a summer vacation spot for affluent Californians whose fancy mansions stood amongst the beauty.

valley of heart's delight

But along with agriculture came the governor of the state of California, a well-to-do fellow by the name of Leland Stanford. Stanford bought 650 acres of land in 1876, 8,000 additional acres a few years later, and when the typhoid-induced death of his only son triggered a wildly noble plan to assist the children of California, in 1891 opened Stanford University in the heart of what would one day be Silicon Valley. Leland Stanford would pass away just two years later, and his wife Jane in 1905, but the university that proudly bore their name soldiered onward.

Stanford, of course, has gone on to become one of the world’s premier universities. But in retrospect, it must also be considered the engine that drove the area’s eventual ascendency as a technological mecca. And the reasons were many.

Stanford university turn of the century
Stanford University at the turn of the century

 

First, there was Stanford’s location. Nearby San Francisco found much of its early electrical needs through hydroelectric dams, and a great deal of the research into long-distance power transmission would ultimately take place at Stanford. San Francisco was also a maritime hub at a time when interest in ship-to-shore radio communication had exploded, and again Stanford was a beneficiary.

That Stanford had an intense regional bias, borne for the most part by its relative isolation from the far more populous eastern US, certainly didn’t hurt. Nor did the fact that in 1951, many years in the future but long before the term “Silicon Valley” had even been coined, the university opted to lease large portions of its huge tract of land to technology firms. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Breaking away from the land

To find what is arguably the seminal event in the metamorphosis from Valley of Heart’s Delight to world tech nucleus, we spoke with a fellow by the name of David Laws. Laws knows Silicon Valley. He’s a curator at the Valley’s multi-million-dollar Computer History Museum. He’s the author of “Silicon Valley: Exploring the Communities Behind the Digital Revolution,” and he spent forty years working in the region with such prominent tech concerns as Advanced Micro Devices and Fairchild Semiconductor (more on Fairchild in a moment). And he’s recently developed an iPhone app dubbed “Silicon Valley Roots and Shoots,” an “insider’s guide to the companies, people, and products that created this vibrant center of high-tech innovation.”

cyril elwell
Cyril Elwell

Laws tells us the tale of an Australian named Cyril Elwell. Elwell, not only a graduate but also an instructor at Stanford, had a profound interest in radio technology, and in 1909 purchased the US rights to a radio transmission technology invented in Europe by one Valdemar Poulsen. Poulsen’s amazing invention, called an “arc converter” or “Poulsen Arc,” was one of the first-ever gadgets to transmit sound via radio waves.

The large-scale potential of the device was not fully understood by many, though it certainly was by Elwell, who, along with a consortium of fellow radio enthusiasts and Stanford instructors, developed and refined the technology. He soon formed the Poulsen Wireless Telephone & Telegraph Company, enlisted the assistance of noted American inventor Lee DeForest, and began pitching the concept of arc transmitters to the US Navy.

Elwell’s business was ultimately renamed Federal Telegraph Company, and the Poulsen Arc found its way aboard numerous World War I battleships. Interestingly, it would be one of Lee DeForest’s other key research projects, the three-element vacuum tube called the “DeForest Audion,” that eventually supplanted Federal Telegraph’s Poulsen Arc as the ship-to-shore radio device of choice a decade later. But not before Elwell and his businesses had established themselves as what is today considered by many as the first prominent non-agricultural commercial industry in the region.

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