Silicon Valley Then and Now: To Invent the Future, You Must Understand the Past

Editor: This article is originally by Leslie Berlin from Medium. It explores the history of Silicon Valley and explains how it comes to today’s stage: technical, culture and money together created Silicon Valley.

“You can’t really understand what is going on now without understanding what came before.”

Steve Jobs is explaining why, as a young man, he spent so much time with the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs a generation older, men like Robert Noyce, Andy Grove, and Regis McKenna.

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in May, 2003, and I’m sitting next to Jobs on his living room sofa, interviewing him for a book I’m writing. I ask him to tell me more about why he wanted, as he put it, “to smell that second wonderful era of the valley, the semiconductor companies leading into the computer.” Why, I want to know, is it not enough to stand on the shoulders of giants? Why does he want to pick their brains?

“It’s like that Schopenhauer quote about the conjurer,” he says. When I look blank, he tells me to wait and then dashes upstairs. He comes down a minute later holding a book and reading aloud:

He who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer’s booth at a fair, and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once, and when they are no longer a novelty and cease to deceive, their effect is gone.

History, Jobs understood, gave him a chance to see — and see through — the conjurer’s tricks before they happened to him, so he would know how to handle them.

Flash forward eleven years. It’s 2014, and I am going to see Robert W. Taylor. In 1966, Taylor convinced the Department of Defense to build the ARPANET that eventually formed the core of the Internet. He went on to run the famous Xerox PARC Computer Science Lab that developed the first modern personal computer. For a finishing touch, he led one of the teams at DEC behind the world’s first blazingly fast search engine — three years before Google was founded.

Visiting Taylor is like driving into a Silicon Valley time machine. You zip past the venture capital firms on Sand Hill Road, over the 280 freeway, and down a twisty two-lane street that is nearly impassable on weekends, thanks to the packs of lycra-clad cyclists on multi-thousand-dollar bikes raising their cardio thresholds along the steep climbs. A sharp turn and you enter what seems to be another world, wooded and cool, the coastal redwoods dense along the hills. Cell phone signals fade in and out in this part of Woodside, far above Buck’s Restaurant where power deals are negotiated over early-morning cups of coffee. GPS tries valiantly to ascertain a location — and then gives up.

When I get to Taylor’s home on a hill overlooking the Valley, he tells me about another visitor who recently took that drive, apparently driven by the same curiosity that Steve Jobs had: Mark Zuckerberg, along with some colleagues at the company he founded, Facebook.

“Zuckerberg must have heard about me in some historical sense,” Taylor recalls in his Texas drawl. “He wanted to see what I was all about, I guess.”

To invent the future, you must understand the past.

I am a historian, and my subject matter is Silicon Valley. So I’m not surprised that Jobs and Zuckerberg both understood that the Valley’s past matters today and that the lessons of history can take innovation further. When I talk to other founders and participants in the area, they also want to hear what happened before. Their questions usually boil down to two: Why did Silicon Valley happen in the first place, and why has it remained at the epicenter of the global tech economy for so long?

I think I can answer those questions.

First, a definition of terms. When I use the term “Silicon Valley,” I am referring quite specifically to the narrow stretch of the San Francisco Peninsula that is sandwiched between the bay to the east and the Coastal Range to the west. (Yes, Silicon Valley is a physical valley — there are hills on the far side of the bay.) Silicon Valley has traditionally comprised Santa Clara County and the southern tip of San Mateo County. In the past few years, parts of Alameda County and the city of San Francisco can also legitimately be considered satellites of Silicon Valley, or perhaps part of “Greater Silicon Valley.”

The name “Silicon Valley,” incidentally, was popularized in 1971 by a hard-drinking, story-chasing, gossip-mongering journalist named Don Hoefler, who wrote for a trade rag called Electronic News. Before, the region was called the “Valley of the Hearts Delight,” renowned for its apricot, plum, cherry and almond orchards.

“This was down-home farming, three generations of tranquility, beauty, health, and productivity based on family farms of small acreage but bountiful production,” reminisced Wallace Stegner, the famed Western writer. To see what the Valley looked like then, watch the first few minutes of this wonderful 1948 promotional video for the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight.”

Three historical forces — technical, cultural, and financial — created Silicon Valley.

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