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 stuffs.

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 integrated chip.

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 Forrest.

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 establishment."

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 present day.

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 victory.

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 government.

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 problem.

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 layman's language!

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...

Peter Hayes (Trinity) (C)

Last updated 4.3.2005