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.
"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.
This story contains 914 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a member, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Membership starts at $12 per month and may be cancelled at any time.