angle-left The pioneers who forged the soul of Silicon Valley
INNOVATION TUNGSTENO

The pioneers who forged the soul of Silicon Valley

A review of the history of the birth of Silicon Valley through some of the key figures who played a role in the development of this region, whose GDP today exceeds that of many developed countries thanks to the technological and business activity it hosts.

Behind the essence of Silicon Valley as we know it today, there is a story of betrayal and eight scientists, the founders of the innovative Fairchild Semiconductor. Credit: California Historical Society.

ANTONIO LÓPEZ | Tungsteno

To the southeast of the city of San Francisco, a valley opens up between the bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains: the base of the heart of computer technology. Silicon Valley was, before it consolidated itself as a global technological enclave, the Santa Clara Valley, a fertile land dedicated to the cultivation of fruit, until a university, a war, the space race against the USSR and the bold decisions of several men created the necessary conditions for it to emerge as the seed of what has become today.

Laying the first stones: the university, the war and a Nobel Prize

Leland Stanford was an influential railway magnate and politician who had established himself in the region. When he lost his only son to typhoid fever, Stanford decided to found the university that today bears his name (1885) on a 3,310-hectare plot of land that made him practically the owner of the valley.

In parallel, and starting from the end of the 19th century, the port of San Francisco was consolidated as the centre of the first telegraph and radio industries. In addition, in the period before the outbreak of the Second World War, eminent European scientists such as Albert Einstein and John Von Neumann fled from Nazism to the United States. The war in Europe prompted American industry to begin mobilising the production of radios, headsets, and radar systems.

Stanford University became a key centre of research and development into electronics, and military funding soon followed. Furthermore, when the United States entered the conflict, San Francisco became a strategic enclave due to its location on the Pacific and because it was already home to several major aerospace companies.

Frederick E. Terman created the Stanford Industrial Park (now Stanford Research Park) in 1951 thanks to military investment. This engineering professor, known as "the father of Silicon Valley," encouraged students to commercialise their ideas and dedicated the park to leasing laboratories and offices to technology companies. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Varian Associates, General Electric and Eastman Kodak made it the epicentre of the transformation. However, a catalyst was still needed, and this was to come from a cantankerous Nobel Prize winner: William B. Shockley.

 

With the invention of the transistor, William B. Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 and laid the foundations for consumer electronics. Credit: AT&T.

The traitorous eight and the birth of a unique culture

What Shockley, who was honoured by many institutions throughout his career, and his colleagues, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, invented at the Bell Telephone Laboratories changed the world and earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956: the point contact transistor, whose operation forms the basis of devices such as television, mobile phones and computers. Shockley moved to California and founded the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to market his invention, after a hard-fought patent war, and worked hard to hire the best talent in the area.

Germanium and silicon are two semiconductor materials that can be used to make transistors. The question of which one is best would be crucial to the future of Silicon Valley. A group of eight young men working for Shockley did not agree with using germanium, as it has less thermal resistance than silicon, and they tried to convince their boss to change course. Shockley refused to see reason, and so the "traitorous eight", as he called them, created Fairchild Semiconductor, a company that was born with what we understand today as the essence of Silicon Valley, an open and daring corporate culture. The company founded by Julius Blank, Victor Grinich, Jean Hoerni, Eugene Kleiner, Jay Last, Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce and Sheldon Roberts became the fastest growing company on Wall Street in 1966 and helped manufacture the computer components for the Apollo Program of the 1960s at the height of the space race with the USSR.

 

 

A selection of books to learn about the history of Silicon Valley and its founders.

Dozens of companies, many of which exist today and form the core of Silicon Valley, were born from this company, which is descended from Shockley's parent company. The germanium-silicon dispute hit the press, and in 1971, journalist Don Hoefler titled an article on the semiconductor industry "Silicon Valley USA". The term stuck and the rest is history.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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