Mountain View Voice

News - May 25, 2012

Development plan threatens 'Birthplace of Silicon Valley'

by Daniel DeBolt

Silicon semiconductor technology was first introduced to Silicon Valley in a building that now houses a grocery store. The building at 391 San Antonio Road may soon be demolished if a developer succeeds in purchasing it.

It's said that over 400 computer companies can be traced back to the Shockley Transistor Company once housed at 391 San Antonio Road, the original meeting place for those who would go on to create the products that give Silicon Valley its name.

Developer Merlone Geier has offered to buy the building and four other nearby properties at the California Street intersection to expand redevelopment plans for a 200 room hotel and 741,000 square foot office building next door.

"The real significance is not any invention made there," said Richard Riordan, author of "Crystal Fire, the Birth of the Information Age." "It was the place where the original superstars of Silicon Valley came together and learned silicon conductor technology from Bill Shockley, who brought it there from Bell Labs."

Those superstars included young Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, who went on to found Intel, and Eugene Kleiner, founder of famed venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Five others joined them in the "traitorous eight" who left Shockley's lab in 1957 to form Fairchild Semiconductor, which transformed the Valley, Riordan said.

Semiconductor's birthplace

"Mountain View is without any doubt the birthplace of the modern semiconductor industry," says Hans Queisser, one of two former Shockley employees there who wrote to the city in 1998 asking that the building at 391 San Antonio Road be honored as Silicon Valley's birthplace. A ceremony was held and a sign placed on the sidewalk recognizing the site as that of "the first silicon device research and manufacturing company in Silicon Valley."

William Shockley set up a lab at 391 San Antonio Road shortly after he shared a Nobel prize for the invention of the transistor in 1956 with two other Bell Labs engineers in New Jersey. Shockley's reputation allowed him to recruit the country's top engineers. But Shockley's lack of insight into interpersonal dynamics was almost as noteworthy and caused a historic event.

Just before Sputnik launched, in September 1957, eight of Shockley's employees, known as the "traitorous eight," left to create Fairchild Semiconductor in Palo Alto after several disputes with Shockley, including one over his preference for germanium over silicon for making transistors. They had considered leaving individually for other jobs but were urged to form their own company by a Wall Street investor named Arthur Rock. Such a move was "radical behavior" at the time, Riordan said, as most engineers were quite loyal to their roles as employees and would stay with one employer for decades.

Shockley himself is said to have called the transistor the "nerve cell" of the information age, making possible modern electronic devices and eventually integrated circuits with miniscule transistors printed on on silicon computer chips.

Within just two years, Shockley's former employees at Fairchild created silicon transistors for telephone companies, a goal Shockley had had. Semiconductor technology grew by leaps and bounds with Fairchild, spawning numerous other companies and filling niche after niche in a growing electronics and computer industry. By 1983 over 100 semiconductor and electronics companies could be traced back to Shockley's lab at 391 San Antonio Road, Quiesser writes, citing a Silicon Valley genealogy map created by the Semiconductor and Equipment Materials International.

'Moses of Silicon Valley'

While some of his employees became billionaires, like Noyce and Moore who formed Intel, Shockley himself never became a millionaire, Riordan said.

As others have said, "Shockley was the 'Moses of Silicon Valley,'" Riordan said. "He brought everybody to the promised land but because he was such a lousy manager he never got to enter it like he wanted to."

In 1998 the city was asked to have the building designated a state historic landmark by Queisser and fellow former Shockley employee Jacques Beaudouin. In a letter to the city, they say "the birth of Silicon Valley ... took place in a small barn-like building on 391 South San Antonio Road." Other descriptions of the building call it a "Quonset hut" indicating it was likely modified at some point.

Beaudoin and Queisser say they faced disbelief from some city officials who thought the birthplace of Silicon Valley was the 1939 garage of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, an idea they say is "historically untenable." They say Riordan's book backs this up.

"I think Shockley's lab is one of the birthplaces of Silicon Valley," Riordan said. "Another one is Hewlett and Packard's garage, but there wasn't any silicon involved."

Riordan said the area was "fertile soil" for Shockley's ideas, thanks to Stanford's electrical engineering professor Frederick Terman, who originally pushed for the creation of the Stanford Industrial Park in the 1930s and is often credited as being "the father of Silicon Valley."

"Shockley was the one who brought silicon to Silicon Valley," Riordan said.

Now a market

The building now houses the International Halal Market. The owners say they do not want to sell, but have seen a drop in business because of nearby construction and a fence that was put up behind their building by developer Merlone Geier.

Neither the site nor the building were officially designated as historic, although city records indicate that City Council members voted on Oct. 27, 1998 to have the site designated as a state historic landmark. The city manager's office recommended against designating the building as historic because it would have subjected any modifications to the building to lengthy and costly environmental reviews.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

Comments

Posted by GC, a resident of Sylvan Park
on May 26, 2012 at 8:59 pm

I hope the people Mountain View will take ownership of the claim to be the birth place of Silicon Valley. The development of the silicon base product (not the vacuum tube HP worked on) was the next generation technology that resulted in all the high tech we see today. And a sign on the side of the road is not a proper tribute. We have saved multiple number of unique buildings just for there age or style however this building/ site has true meaning.


Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 28, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

I was enlightened by the account by the two Shockley Semiconductor veterans (Beaudoin and Queisser) of finding in 1998 "disbelief from some [Mountain View] city officials who thought the birthplace of Silicon Valley was the 1939 garage of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard." What this really illustrates is the spread of misconception and supposition about "Silicon Valley," even in its town of origin, despite the phrase's unambiguous coinage and publication as I'll detail below. And even though the silicon semiconductor industry, a key part of Santa Clara County's economic history, has employed many tens of thousands of local people, many of whom, like Beaudoin and Queisser, retain direct knowledge of its events.

Electronics trade journalist Don Hoefler coined and popularized the phrase "Silicon Valley" in a 1971 _Electronic News_ article series tracing the rapidly growing family tree of the local integrated-circuits (IC), or silicon-chip, industry, from Shockley Semiconductor to Fairchild Semiconductor and its offspring (already numerous in 1971 and including Intel, National, and Signetics). I recall the series, or at least part of it, being titled "The Saga of Silicon Valley." I saw it at the time, as a teen-aged embryonic engineer still in high school. By the 1980s when I worked in that industry myself, Hoefler was publishing a pricey scandal-sheet newsletter, _Microelectronics News,_ carrying industry data, gossip, and dirt. Everyone in the business read it, and hoped to see more in it about their competitors than their own firm. I still have issues saved.

The phrase "Silicon Valley" was used mainly within the electronics industries for years. I saw it enter national news media at the end of the 1970s; those media promptly got it wrong, inaugurating a trend. For details, see my May-1 comment to a previous Voice story, link below, and my related letter in the current (May-23) Metro Silicon Valley. (Both were written before the current Voice story above appeared.)

Web Link

Hoefler's term "Silicon Valley" gradually entered mainstream use and misuse. As popular writers began treating the subject (and quoting each other), they tended naturally to place integrated circuits into the broader, much longer history of electronic technology around the SF peninsula and south bay. That history includes Hewlett and Packard's instrument firm (1939, based on Hewlett's student thesis, which I also have, advocating his oscillator design on the merit of lighter weight) and Hewlett and Packard's mentor Prof. Frederick Terman; the Varian brothers (whose 1930s work on microwave generators begat Varian Associates, 1948); Alexander M. Poniatoff's eponymous firm AMPEX (1944) with its pioneering work in professional magnetic tape recording; and magnetic disk storage's origins in the RAMAC 350 at the IBM San Josť laboratory (1956). Over the years I've heard first-hand accounts of some of that history. For instance the late professor John Woodyard recalled an experiment with the Varian brothers at Stanford in the 1930s. Reflected microwaves were compared to their source and used to measure the speed of pedestrians and bicyclists from a Stanford laboratory window. Woodyard said that someone immediately feared the invention coming into use by traffic cops.

Those developments predated the IC industry, and were separate from it. All could be called related to it, in broad-brush ways like geography and a regional culture of electronics technology development generally. Hoefler's coinage, though, meant silicon chips (the "silicon" in question), which is how the phrase has been understood longest, and by people closest to the industry Hoefler chronicled (he died in the 1980s). Only long after the phrase's use in the trade did later writers link other regional figures like Terman into the silicon-valley story. (When I worked at H-P 30 years ago, which incidentally was years before many people perceived H-P as a "computer" firm, Terman figured in new-employee orientations as part of the context of H-P itself, separate from and 20 years before the silicon chip industry.)

During the late-1990s dot-com era I saw people starting to mischaracterize Silicon Valley as "known for" (or in extreme cases even "the birthplace of") the computer industry. That's a gross misconception: US computer manufacturing history was geographically dispersed and largely outside California, although magnetic disk storage, a component technology of computers, has local history. Modern computers do use silicon chips, but so do most other electronic products, which aren't computers. In recent years, some people associate the phrase with software or with Internet commerce (which does share some geography, but is a distinct industry). Another recent notion is that Silicon-Valley business booms started with the dot-com era; that's ironic given that such a boom in the 1960s prompted Hoefler's articles and the very phrase "Silicon Valley."

A few years ago a book appeared purporting to be a "history of Silicon Valley," written at Stanford. I thumbed through it at the bookstore, went to its extensive index, but found no mention of Hoefler, who coined the book's own title phrase, within the living memory of many people. That was enough to keep me from reading further.


Posted by gc, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 8, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Should silicon valley be reduces to a sign?

Birthplace of Silicon Valley

Web Link


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