Steve Blank

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part V: Happy 100th Birthday Silicon Valley

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

I always had been curious about how Silicon Valley, a place I had lived and worked in, came to be.  And throughout my career as an entrepreneur I kept asking questions of my VC investors and friends; Where did entrepreneurship come from?  How did Silicon Valley start? Why here?  Why now? How did this culture of “make it happen” emerge, etc.  And the answer came back much as it did in my past jobs; Who cares, get back to work.

After I retired, Jerry Engel, director of the Lester Center on Entrepreneurship, at U.C. Berkeley Haas Business School was courageous enough to give me a forum teach the Customer Development Methodology. As I was researching my class text, I thought it would be simple enough to read up on a few histories of the valley and finally get my questions about the genesis of entrepreneurship answered.

The Legend: HP, Intel and Apple
I read all the popular books about the valley and they all told a variant of the same story; entrepreneurs as heroes building the Semiconductor and Personal Computer companies: Bill Hewlett and David Packard at HP, Bob Taylor and the team at Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs and Wozniak at Apple, Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce at Intel, etc.  These were inspiring stories, but I realized that, no surprise, the popular press were writing books that had mass appeal.  They were all fun reads about plucky entrepreneurs who start from nothing and against all odds, build a successful company.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

But no one was writing about where the entrepreneurial culture had come from.  Where were the books explaining why were all these chip and computer companies started here?  Why not elsewhere in the country or the world?  With the exception of one great book, no one was writing about our regional advantage. Was it because entrepreneurs keep moving forward and rarely look back?  I needed to dig deeper.

The Facts: Vacuum Tube Valley – Our 100th Anniversary
To my surprise, I discovered that yes, Silicon Valley did start in a garage in Palo Alto, but it didn’t start in the Hewlett Packard garage.  The first electronics company in Silicon Valley was Federal Telegraph, a tube company started in 1909 in Palo Alto as Poulsen Wireless.  (This October is the 100th anniversary of Silicon Valley, unnoticed and unmentioned by anyone.)  By 1912, Lee Deforest working at Federal Telegraph would invent the Triode, (a tube amplifier) and would go on to become the Steve Jobs of his day – visionary, charismatic and controversial.

* Federal Telegraph and Lee Deforest in Palo Alto are the first major events in what would become Silicon Valley.  We need to reset our Silicon Valley birthday calendars to here.

By 1937, when Bill Hewlett and David Packard left Stanford to start HP, the agricultural fields outside of Stanford had already become “Vacuum Tube Valley.” HP was a supplier of electronic test equipment and joined a small but  thriving valley electronics industry with companies like Litton and Eitel and McCollough.

* By the late 1930’s when HP started, a small group (measured in hundreds) of engineers who made radio tubes were building the valleys’ ecosystem for electronics manufacturing, product engineering and technology management.

Who would have known?

Microwave Valley – the 1950’s and ’60’s
There isn’t much written about Silicon Valley during and after World War II.  The story of the valley post war, through the 1950’s, is mostly about the growth of the tube companies and the rise of Hewlett Packard.  The popular literature has the valley springing to life in the 1960’s with the semiconductor revolution started by Shockley, Fairchild, Signetics, National and Intel, followed by the emergence of the personal computer in the mid 1970’s.

But the more I read, the more I realized that the public history’s of the valley in the 1950’s and ’60’s were incomplete and just plain wrong. The truth was that huge dollars were spent on a large number of companies that never made the press or into the history books. Companies specializing in components and systems that operated in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum sprouted faster than fruit trees in the valley orchards. In ten years, from the early 1950’s to the early 1960’s, the valley went through a hiring frenzy as jobs in microwave companies went from 700 to 7,000.

This wave of 1950’s/’60’s startups (Watkins-Johnson, Varian, Huggins Labs, MEC, Stewart Engineering, etc.) were making  dizzying array of new microwave componentspower grid tubesklystrons, magnetrons,  backward wave oscillators, traveling wave tubes (TWT’s), cross-field amplifiers, gyrotrons, and on, on…  And literally across the valley, these microwave devices were being built into complete systems for the U.S. military by other new startups;  Sylvania Electronics Defense Laboratory, Granger Associates, Philco, Dalmo Victor, ESL and Argosystems. In the 1950’s and ’60’s more money was pouring into these companies than on the fledgling chip and computer companies.

* The 10x expansion in the number of engineers in the valley in the 1950’s came from the military and microwaves – before the semiconductor boom. And these microwave engineers were working at startups – not large companies. You never heard of them because their work was secret.

When I read the funny names of these microwaves devices… Backward wave oscillators, TWT’s, Magnetrons…long silent memories came back. These components were the heart of the electronic warfare equipment I have worked on; including fighters in Thailand and on B-52 bombers.  After 20 years, the story started coming home for me.

The Revolution Wasn’t Televised
What the heck happened here to create this burst of innovation?  What created this microwave startup culture in the 1950’s? And since there was no Venture Capital in the 1950’s/’60’s where was the money coming from?  This startup boom seemed to come out of nowhere.  Why was it occurring here?  And why on earth the sudden military interest in microwaves?

Part of the answer was that these companies and the military had forged some type of relationship.  And it appeared that Stanford University’s engineering department was in middle of all this. The formation of the military/industrial/university relationships during the Cold War and the relationship between Stanford and the intelligence community in particular, went on untold and out of sight.

While nothing I read described the specific products being worked on, or what specifically was Stanford’s contribution, there were some really tantalizing pointers to who the real customers were (hint, it wasn’t just the “military,”) or why was this work was being done at Stanford.

No one knew that it all pointed to just one guy at the center of it all –  Fred Terman of Stanford University.

* Stanford, the military and our intelligence agencies started the wave of entrepreneurial culture that today’s Silicon Valley takes for granted.

The “Secret Life of Fred Terman” and “Stanford Fights the Cold War” on the Part VI of the “Secret History” posts here.