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Primer: Silicon Valley Gadgetry February 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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This post is a sequel, of sorts, to my previous post on the “100,000 garages” rhetorical device, and, more directly, to my Hump-Day History post on Fred Terman.  It is also an extension of yesterday’s post on the AIP’s History of Physicists in Industry project, where I pointed out that analyses of firm behavior at the project level would be a useful thing for historians to do.  Of course, there are cases where this has already been done, at least to an extent, with great success, as in the case of Silicon Valley vacuum tube and integrated circuit manufacturing firms.

Russell and Sigurd Varian with a klystron in 1951; click to go to Stanford University website

The Varian brothers, William Hansen, David Webster, and John Woodyard inspect a klystron; Photo credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Between the 1930s and the 1970s, the region around Palo Alto, California, just south of San Francisco, grew into a center for electronics innovation and manufacture, challenging the domination of the electronics industry by firms such as General Electric, RCA, Western Electric, and Westinghouse.  The companies located near Palo Alto were able to mount this challenge because they were able to establish a strong expertise in the invention and quality low-cost manufacture of specialized technologies.  This expertise was based not only in engineering know-how, but in a detailed physical, chemical, and mathematical understanding of the construction and operation of specific technological devices, which could be exploited to improve them.

The first gadgets to bring economic relevance to the region were the magnetron, and, especially, the klystron, which were varieties of microwave vacuum tubes.  In the 1920s and 1930s, local ham radio enthusiasts developed short-wave, high-power vacuum tubes, which were then uncommon in mainstream radio and wireless communications.  However, the use of radar in World War II created a demand for components that could transmit and receive in the microwave band.  The war forced tube manufacturing firms, notably Eitel-McCullough and Litton Industries, to make more sophisticated and reliable products, and to make them in large quantities.  After the war, these firms, as well as the new firm Varian Associates,  became recognized by the military as the leading manufacturers in high quality microwave tubes.

Meanwhile, as the 1950s progressed, other local firms exploited the 1948 invention of the transistor at Bell Labs, beginning with transistor co-inventor and Palo Alto native William Shockley’s new business, Shockley Semiconductor.  While many of the new firms were known for progressive and generous management, Shockley was abrasive, and, famously, a number of his key employees left in 1956 to form Fairchild Semiconductor, which developed and marketed the basic transistor technology, and developed early integrated circuits etched onto silicon wafers, including the soon-standard “planar” design.  (See also the AIP/PBS website, “Transistorized!”)

Stanford University supported the rise of the industries around it by providing research and talent.  However, it was by virtue of its location close to the firms where these technologies were invented, and the relationships some of its professors fostered with those firms’ founders, that allowed Stanford to become an important early center for studying microwave tubes, and later transistors and integrated circuits .

Throughout the 1950s, the military played a key role as a customer for high-tech and high-performance electronic gadgetry, spurring new innovations required for the proper performance of equipment such as the Minuteman missile.  Components became sturdier and more powerful.  New clean room production processes and quality control schemes were developed.  Support technologies and businesses in high quality machining and high-powered vacuum pumps (among other areas) were created.  All led to the growth of the region as both an economic force and a hub of expertise in overlapping scientific and engineering specialties.

In the 1960s, military demand dropped off as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara instituted procurement reforms, which was especially hard on the vacuum tube industry.  Firms changed management, were sold, and changed their business strategies, particularly by shifting their focus toward commercial markets.  Varian, for example, went into the manufacture of scientific and medical instrumentation, particularly medical linear accelerators and nuclear magnetic resonance analysis machines (NMR arose out of research at Stanford by physicists William Hansen and Felix Bloch).  Fairchild developed commercial markets by imagining and marketing applications for its solid state technologies.

Through the 1960s, manufacturers of integrated circuit devices became the driver of the local economy, as firms such as Hewlett-Packard entered the business.  Companies often fostered friendly and intellectually stimulative working environments, but also competed fiercely against each other.  Managers feared the departure of employees who would go on to work for, or found, competing organizations.  Intellectual property and trade secret law suits skyrocketed, and aggressive business maneuvers were common.  The firm Signetics, for example, rose quickly to become the preeminent producer of integrated circuits, but was shoved aside when the larger Fairchild undercut them. The term “Silicon Valley” was coined in 1971, just as a new series of firms, including National Semiconductor, Intersil, and Intel was rising to challenge the “established” giants like Fairchild.

There are, of course, lots of books on Silicon Valley, many of them generated by the pop-science loremeisters, whose accounts are important (see last July’s “historiography from below” post), but should always be read carefully by anyone interested in learning about history.  This post is based on economic analyst Christophe Lécuyer’s fantastic and detailed 2006 book, Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High-Tech, 1930-1970.  Also have a look at Ann Johnson’s recent review of this and two other books in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, nicely titled “What If We Wrote the History of Science from the Perspective of Applied Science?”

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