The Technology Trees of Silicon Valley: Today’s Orchard
by Alan Kubitz
Residents of Sunnyvale, California, live in the Santa Clara Valley, heart of the high-tech capital of the world – yes, the world! As recently as the nineteen-fifties, the locals were surrounded by acre after acre of apricot, cherry, and prune trees, and people called the region the Valley of Heart’s Delight. And a beautiful, bountiful landscape it was. Today, after monumental change, Sunnyvale is part of the larger Silicon Valley, and the cash crop derives not from produce, but from silicon, that natural element crucial to the ubiquitous transistor and the integrated circuits which combine hundreds of thousands of transistors on a tiny silicon “chip” no larger than a fingernail. Only a few producing orchards are left in the Santa Clara Valley today. Now, the landscape is covered with pavement connecting hundreds of industrial parks and large corporate campuses. Electrical and software engineers are everywhere, as well as venture capitalists, ready to loan money to promising fledgling operations whose founders have “the next big idea.”
This is where it all began: a tiny garage on Addison Avenue, in an unassuming residential area near downtown Palo Alto and just down the road from Stanford University (more to follow). Untold fortunes have been made (and lost) in Silicon Valley as fragile, seedling companies strived to take root and grow, over the years, into towering trees whose far-reaching branches continue to merge with those from neighboring seedlings. The result is an overarching canopy of scientific knowledge and technical know-how which has changed the way we live our lives.
How and why did this remarkable transition occur in fewer than three decades, and why here? The local story of Apple Computer is familiar enough to present-day residents of this valley. As impressive and ubiquitous as the company and its products may be, Apple is but the result and not a cause of the tech culture we witness in the region today. Apple Computer was founded in 1976 in a Cupertino residential garage by two youngsters, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who truly believed they could build a better computer than those produced by other “hobbyist afficionados” back in those early years. Wozniak had the technical knowledge necessary to create a viable Apple II computer for the market and Jobs was the corporate/marketing visionary with the stamina to make Apple happen as it did.
Two young electrical engineering graduates from the Stanford University graduating class of 1935 came along much earlier than the two Steves of Apple, and it was their success that heralded the transformation of the Santa Clara Valley. William Hewlett and David Packard’s fledgling company became Hewlett Packard, also known as HP, one of the truly great icons in Valley history. Have you visited the famous “HP Garage” at 367 Addison Avenue in downtown Palo Alto? Although rarely open to the public, it is visible from the sidewalk. It was in this tiny, detached garage directly behind their rented quarters that Hewlett and Packard began HP by designing and building a simple piece of electronic test equipment called the 200A audio oscillator. From such a simple beginning, these young entrepreneurial engineers built corporate giant, Hewlett Packard, long the leading supplier of state-of-the-art electronic test/measurement equipment, computers, and printers. During my thirty-seven year career as an electrical engineer in this Valley, many of my working hours were spent in a product development lab surrounded by stacks of HP test and measurement equipment. Any older electrical engineer, anywhere, can relate!
The Hewlett Packard story showcases the two primary reasons that cities including Palo Alto, Cupertino, and Sunnyvale find themselves at the focus of the world’s tech capital. The two prime movers underpinning today’s Silicon Valley were: Stanford University and its famed Professor of Electrical Engineering during the nineteen-twenties through the fifties, Frederick Emmons Terman. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were both electrical engineering graduates, class of 1935, who studied at Stanford under Fred Terman. It was Terman who recognized the talent of his two charges and suggested that they consider an alternative to the long practice of recent West-Coast electrical engineering grads which was to pack their bags and head east to where the jobs were. Famous company names like General Electric, Westinghouse, IBM, Bell Labs, and countless others were well established on the East Coast and always on the lookout for engineering talent. Looking southward from the Stanford campus in 1938, little, save acres of orchards, could be seen – certainly few established companies with good opportunities like those on the East Coast.
Fred Terman was himself an accomplished electrical engineer who wrote the “industry standard textbook” titled Radio Engineering back in 1932. As a student at Stanford in the early nineteen-sixties, I myself used the 1955 fourth edition of his book. Terman was not only a nationally recognized engineer but an uncommon visionary, as well. At the center of his vision for the future was Stanford University. Accordingly, he convinced his talented pair of students, Hewlett and Packard, to break tradition, remain in the region, and begin their very own company, right here! They did precisely that at 367 Addison Avenue, less than three miles from campus. HP grew rapidly to become an industry giant with an uncommonly fine corporate culture and identity. And the rest was history, as Terman, from his Stanford faculty position, took an ever more active role in promoting the local region and seeding it with other start-ups during the years that followed. Not only was the proximity of Stanford University an attraction to young entrepreneurs bent on acquiring state-of-the-art knowledge, the fresh, scenic beauty of the region and the weather were not to be discounted!
Terman was instrumental in Stanford’s important 1951 decision to incorporate some of the university’s prime, ninety-four hundred acres of extensive campus as the Stanford Industrial Park. HP, in its heyday, established its corporate headquarters on the edge of the new industrial park – a familiar sight on Page Mill Road, just west of El Camino Real. Many tech and venture capital firms followed suit and settled nearby on Stanford land. The Stanford Shopping Center sits on Stanford property under a very long-term lease agreement with the university. The founding grant from Leland and Jane Stanford stipulates that the land they bequeathed as part of the university charter shall never be sold.
Stanford University is a fascinating study in itself. Founded in 1891, in memory of their only son, Leland Stanford Junior, Leland and Jane Stanford dedicated the school to “the children of California.” Stanford University has made an incredible mark not only on this valley, but on the world at large, thanks in large part to the vision of Fred Terman.