PETER HAYES EXPLORES HOW A STRETCH OF FERTILE CALIFORNIAN
FARMLAND BECAME TRANSFORMED IN TO THE MOST IMPORTANT
PIECE OF REAL ESTATE IN THE WORLD. TODAY - IN PART ONE -
HE LOOKS AT THE PEOPLE, PLACES AND POLITICS THAT HELP
SHAPE THE GREATEST INVENTION OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY -
THE SILICON CHIP
For most of its human history the
Santa Clara Valley - California, USA - was known only for
its temperate climate and fertile soils which year after
year produced bumper crops of soft fruits such as
apricots, pears and cherries.
Today the 25 mile long vale that lies between the Santa
Cruz Mountains and the East Bay Foothills is far better
known for its high technology companies than for its food
Here we find the small pocket of land known the whole
world over by its self-explanatory nickname: Silicon
Valley. The world headquarters of computer giants such as
Intel, Adobe and Hewlett-Packard - to pick just three
names from a long list.
As we shall explore in more detail, in parts two and
three of the series, the Valley has, of late, experienced
the first chill winds: The price of chips has been
dropping and new rivals have been appearing on the
horizon; but whatever the future holds, it cannot
possibly diminish the areas impressive recent past.
The name "Silicon Valley" was coined by
electronic writer Don Hoeffler in an mid-1972 magazine
article: An ironic reference to the number of new
start-up companies in the valley trying to find fame and
fortune with the, then, revolutionary new invention- the
However, despite the modernistic name, the area had long
had a reputation for innovation in the field of
electronics and engineering. As far back as 1909 the
region gave us the "audion tube," an important
vacuum tube that amplified an electrical signal. An
invention of one electronics great early pioneers, Lee de
Another early name worthy of mention is Frederick Terman
who, in the late 1930s, was a professor of radio
engineering at nearby Stanford University. He encouraged
two bright engineering students to use their undoubted
talent for their own benefit rather than "take their
skills back to those lazy souls in the East Coast
Their names were William Hewlett and David Packard. The
company that eventually bore their twin surnames names
became one of the most constantly successful electronics
firms of all time. Surfing the forward waves of modern
electronics and computing from post Second World War to
In a forerunner of what would later become common at
stanford, Hewlett and Packard (with help and financial
backing from Terman) produced commercial audio equipment
while still completing their degree course. There first
big coup was selling some of this equipment to the Walt
Disney Studios, some of which was later used in the
making of the animated film Fantasia.
Perhaps without this early break the partners might never
have had the confidence to strike out on their own and
history would have been denied.
Perhaps the most valuable early invention of the early
Valley was the Klystron Tube (invented by Russell Varian
and Phil Farnsworth), which played a huge role in
lightweight radar. Used by the RAF during the Battle of
Britain it gave the Allies an edge over the German
Luftwaffe - and was perhaps even key to their eventual
Telling a long and complicated story in a short
sentence,the computer industry has gone through three key
stages involving valves (or vacuum tubes), transistors
and finally silicon chips. All have produced working
computers, but only silicon has been able to reduce their
cost to anything that could be termed practical or
affordable - to anyone other than major corporations or
Nevertheless these early models at least lighted the way
as regards procedure and the central mathematics. Even
without the silicon chip early computer networking - via
a normal telephone line - was at least demonstrated.
The road towards what we now call the silicon chip has
been long and rocky. It became known as early as 1947
that silicon (in its normal unadulterated form a complete
insulator rather than a conductor) could, when specially
prepared (usually by adding phosphorus or boron in a
highly controlled manner), be induced into making a
switch or circuit: The heart of all computing.
However it would take nearly twenty-five years to make
anything of commercial value out of this discovery. The
primary problem being how to work on a miniature scale.
This problem was eventually solved by using a
photographic reduction process.
Around 1955 a brilliant, but temperamental, engineer
called Robert Shockley opened Schockley Transistor that
would eventually, after great effort, build the first
working integrated chip.
The biggest irony was that Schockley cut across the other
leading minds of his company in preferring to research
using the material germanium (a common substance with
highly similar properties to silicon), rather than
silicon. This disagreement led to a walk out by other
development engineers that almost finished the company.
Luckily for Schockley he found new supporters in a
visionary fellow engineer called Robert Noyce and the
firm Fairchild Camera and Instrument; who later set up
Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain View to further
develop Schockley's themes and ideas.
Noyce's business skill and Schockley's forward thinking
genius led to the world's first manufactured Integrated
Circuit or IC. However efforts to towards mass producing
the invention and finding customers for it soon became a
Frustrated, Noyce left the company taking with him
leading design engineer Gordon Moore. Finding favour with
venture capitalist Arthur Rock he formed a company that
would be tower over all others (with the exception of
Microsoft) in the computer field - Intel. The name being
a contraction of "integrated electronics."
Despite all appearances the war was far from won. The
technology had to be further miniaturised and industrial
procedures perfected. However by 1971 the industry had
what it had been searching for - the invention that it
termed "a complete computer on a single chip."
However only the science community celebrated the
achievement, the general press had no idea what this
signified and Intel seemed unable to explain it in
Since then the density of random memory access chips has
doubled every two years and Intel has remained in the
forefront of the semiconductor field. Perhaps with a
little justice given the massive risks that Arthur Rock -
who had no science background to rely on - had run.
Next time we will look at the ways the invention has been
used and the rise of the Personal Computer (or PC) and
their partners-in-crime the major software companies...
Hayes (Trinity) (C)