Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High-Tech, 1930-1970
Author: Christophe Lecuyer
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: June 2006
Circuits matter. So do individual components. The history of Silicon Valley is a story of the interaction between circuits and components, both technological and human. As Christophe Lecuyer tells it in Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High-Tech, 1930-1970, the San Francisco Peninsula's transformation into the personal computer mecca is a complicated story starring communities of skilled hobbyists, entrepreneurs, monopolists, scientists and technicians whose work shaped the region as much as did individuals' proclivities, talents, and luck. A mosaic of companies emerged as leaders during the electronics frontier days. Before there was Apple, there was Litton; before National Semiconductor, there was Eitel-McCullough; before Intel, there was Varian.
Making Silicon Valley makes a number of important contributions to the history of high tech. The most outstanding one is its treatment of the history as a series of technological innovations driven by individuals, their personal and professional networks, their relationships to the wider political and economic climate, and the technological and management innovations these relationships made possible and, at times, demanded. Lecuyer takes the determined march of technological innovation seriously (Ceruzzi, 2005) without slipping into technological determinism.
Theoretically, Lecuyer's approach follows the work of Alfred Marshall, the "father" of modern microeconomics (4). Following Marshall, Lecuyer focuses on the ways in which groups of skilled workers sowed their technological and managerial competence in the industrial districts around them. These skilled workers carried their knowledge as well as their political and religious backgrounds with them as they infused their surroundings with unique know-how that attracted similarly skilled and minded workers.
The book is full of tantalizing details that point to the talents on which US industry depends. In so doing, Lecuyer adapts Alfred Marshall's work to account for Silicon Valley's development. Each chapter unfolds the intertwining stories of those individual engineers whose skills and proclivities fertilized the valley for the electronics and computer industries. Individual engineers depended on their circuits of friends and associates to build their companies and with them, the future of electronics and computer component production in the Valley.
Chapter 1 spotlights the relationship between early radio amateurs and the emerging community of electrical engineers and entrepreneurs. To get around the patents and monopolistic practices of RCA and other east-coast radio companies, as well as to "rid himself of rebellious glass blowers" (28) who resisted industrial-age work discipline, Charles Litton invented the glass lathe that enabled him to produce the high-precision tubes that seeded his reputation as an expert materials engineer and project manager. RCA's monopoly and refusal to sell vacuum tubes also encouraged William Eitel and McCullough, associates of Litton's from amateur radio conferences ("hamfests") in the Valley, to produce superior power grid tubes. During the lean and uncertain years of the Depression, Eitel and McCullough started their own company and eventually sold the devices back to monopolists like RCA and GE. Eitel-McCullough and Litton depended on military contracts, and their growth during war times reflected this relationship.
But Lecuyer emphasizes that the high quality of technological innovations was also key to sustaining the growth of the Valley's electronics firms. Litton's emphasis on clean production, as discussed in chapters 1 and 2, won his company accolades from the British military as the best producers of magnetrons in the Western world. Ironically, Litton's success spelled the end of his ownership of the magnetron business. Because his magnetron company, Litton Industries, reaped profits that exceeded those allowed by government contractors, Litton sold the company to private investors. Even more ironically, because he rejected the new owners' offer to buy a significant interest in the new firm, Litton did not enjoy the stock windfall that turned the new owners into multi-millionaires a few years after the sale.
One comes away from Lecuyer's book with an awareness of the interdependent fates of companies and their individual, corporate, and governmental friends and enemies. The Red Scare, discussed in chapter 3, forced some members off the board of Varian Associates, a military engineering firm, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities deemed these individuals "security risks" because of their communist and socialist friends and relatives. Military demand for weapons of mass destruction also took its toll on Varian engineers. Varian won a defense contract to develop the fuse of atomic bombs in 1948 and expanded the contract several times by the summer of 1950. Lecuyer points out that although the socialist-leaning founders were "patriots," and "had little sympathy for the Soviet Union" (103), some expressed regret about working on atomic bomb technology. Such regret caused one of the founder's mental problems toward the end of the decade, and as Lecuyer speculates, inspired the development of the linear accelerator at Stanford for cancer treatment. Among other innovations Lecuyer attributes to Varian is its profit sharing and employee-ownership management style. Although borrowed from Litton, who used profit sharing and stock options to break unionizing efforts in his company, Varian's use of the carrot seemed inspired by cooperative values of the utopian communities in which some of Varian's founders were raised.
Chapter 4 contests the "great man theory" of silicon technology development. Against histories that characterize Robert Noyce as the "heroic individual" who served as the driving force behind Fairfield Semiconductor and its pioneering work in silicon electronics, Lecuyer argues that such work sprang from the group efforts of creative, skilled, and determined individuals. A group of chemists, engineers, and physicists, who began at Shockley Semiconductor in 1956, parlayed their scientific and financial alliances to launch their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor, when the group grew dissatisfied with Shockley's close supervision, fickle support for research projects, and decision to abandon its pioneering work in silicon transistors. Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel and formulator of Moore's Law, was among the original rebellious eight who founded Fairchild. It was a lesser known engineer and co-founder Jean Hoerni, however, who made "the most important innovation in the history of the semiconductor industry": the planar process that made possible the development of the integrated circuit (150). As Lecuyer tells it, the story of planar process development grew out of a complex of factors, not solely out of one man's brain or the skill set of one company. A variety of forces inspired the new process including: dependence on military avionic contracts that demanded high reliability, competition from Texas Instruments, and the groups' expertise in solid-state physics, optics, metallurgy, chemistry, and engineering. These factors led to Fairchild's development of the integrated circuit.
Lecuyer also emphasizes the impact that Fairchild's genesis and management style had on later entrepreneurial ventures. Striking out on their own, as the Fairchild 8 did, signaled possibilities for other startup success stories. Increasing venture capital in the area stimulated the Valley's entrepreneurial growth through the 1960s and 1970s. Fairchild also embraced a corporatist management style. In consultation with other area electronics firms, Fairchild encouraged work teams, profit sharing, company sports teams and activities, and, at the risk of appearing socialist (an accusation waged against Fairchild but seems ridiculous on its face), awarded stock options to the 40 most important engineers. Stock options became de rigueur throughout the electronics and computer industry.
The scaled-down defense budgets of the 1960s, however, halted the gravy train of military contracts. In response, Silicon Valley electronics manufacturers merged, downsized employees, and increasingly targeted consumer markets. Chapter 5 outlines these changes by again attending to the individual players, their social networks, and wider structural trends, especially what one defense contractor dubbed the "McNamara Depression." As Lecuyer describes it, the Valley's response was noting short of dramatic, a series of contests for commercial survival and domination, with an indeterminate outcome. The merger wave raised eyebrows at the Department of Justice, but persuasive executives at Eitel-McCullough and Varian convinced the government to abandon its antitrust investigation. On the heels of this victory, the newly merged company and a host of others re-oriented their focus around civilian consumers. Chemical instrumentation, commercial computing, and consumer electronics (i.e., transistorized TVs) served as new market segments. Complementing the new consumer orientation was "delocalization." Eager to cut costs, in 1963 Fairchild Semiconductor "took over" an old rubber shoe factory that "looked like a sweat shop" in Hong Kong, employed young female operators trained in the US and Taiwan, and assembled 120 million transistors. After moving to an epoxy packaging process, Fairchild ramped up production higher and drove costs lower. Hong Kong assemblers earned less than a tenth of the hourly wage of their US counterparts; Hong Kong engineers earned less than one-fourth of US engineers.
If the San Francisco Peninsula seemed the center of integrated circuit production, even if it had outsourced some production work to cheap labor markets, how did the region cement its status and, a decade later, become known as Silicon Valley? Chapters 6 and 7 tell the story. Fairchild's success in mass producing integrated circuits resulted from, as Chapter 6 details, another series of military funding decisions, attempts to outdo competition, and the brutal will of executives and engineers in the early to mid 1960s. Chapter 7 takes us through the spinoffs and breakaways that sprang up across the Valley, including Intel and National Semiconductor. Entrepreneurs starting their new companies "raided" old guard firms like Fairchild and Union Carbide Electronics for their skilled technicians and operators. Again, dependence on social circuits gave rise to technological and managerial innovations in the production and marketing of Valley electronics. By the time Don Hoefler introduced the region as "Silicon Valley," in a series of articles for Electronic News in 1971, few would have disputed the suitability of the moniker.
This book has a number of attributes that make it appealing reading list material for research projects and courses that delve into the history of computers, new media, and, of course, the Silicon Valley. First, Making Silicon Valley delivers a history of technology that avoids falling into technological determinism. This is no easy feat. Especially since the book provides in painstaking (and for this communication scholar sometimes painful) detail the inner workings of the tubes and circuits, down to the chemical and physical reactions. Lecuyer provides such descriptions to give readers an appreciation for the immense technical skill and daring that account for much of our old and new technologies. As a technological layperson but fan of the history of technology, I appreciate this education.
I also appreciate the extent to which Making Silicon Valley provides a social history of the area and its predominant industry. As a reader in the discipline of communication, at chapter 7, I was impressed by Lecuyer's consistent spicing of sometimes technologically tedious text with tidbits about the social environment that incubated Valley startups. Engineers shared information through formal and informal channels, including bars. One bar, the Wagon Wheel, became so popular as an after work watering hole, that startup managers fearing leaks about proprietary information forbade their employees to go to the Wheel and other establishments. Lecuyer's attention to professional and social circles and management styles also makes Making Silicon Valley useful reading for scholars working in the area of organizational communication.
For these reasons, Lecuyer's work stands up to the challenge recently issued by technological historian Paul Ceruzzi to take seriously the "unstoppable march" of semiconductor density and with it, the advance of Moore's law. In many ways, Making Silicon Valley serves as a history of the general precept that underlies Moore's law, that "computing power increases because it can" (Ceruzzi, 2005, 590). After reading Lecuyer's history of the region and its key players, I would add that technological innovations occur because of the talented, determined men, their communities, and the historical context in which they live. Lecuyer's work analyzes both the technological instruments and the "drama" that surrounds their development and diffusion (Marvin, 1988).
As extensive as Lecuyer's history is, however, the book leaves out "other" drivers of technological innovation. As I read each chapter, I wanted more discussion of those others working down the line, so to speak, from the top engineers. Making Silicon Valley omits discussion of lower-level workers and the contributions and sacrifices they made to make Silicon Valley. For an excellent project that gives voice to component makers, many of them women and immigrant workers, who suffered environmental racism and to the "ecocide" that the industry waged, I refer RCCS readers to David Naguib Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park's The Silicon Valley of Dreams (2002). I appreciate that Pellow and Park set out to create a very different project than Lecuyer's, but in the 303 pages of Lecuyer's carefully sourced text, discussions of the many enterprising and talented men would have benefited from further elaboration on the women Eitel-McCullough hired "for delicate assembly operations" (40). The very gendered nature of the tales told in Making Silicon Valley stay out of the story. At least a few explanatory footnotes would ease readers' concerns about the exclusive focus on the men who built the valley and the lack of commentary on the female "particle pickers" hired to clear the air for klystron assembly (115).
I found the book's discussion of unionization efforts similarly one-sided. Lecuyer seems to identify with the entrepreneurial engineers of the valley who view unionization as a threat to business. Lecuyer calls East Bay unions "powerful and militant" (42) and "a death threat" (204) to business without describing the working conditions that made them so. Discussion in chapter 1 foregrounds the skill with which Eitel-McCullough dispensed with organizing drives through use of corporatist practices like encouraging cooperation between management and labor and extending pensions and job security. Such a focus affords Eitel and McCullough positions as protagonists of the story, as individuals who worked against and despite threatening labor unions. Chapter 5 discusses how Fairchild Semiconductor "delocalized" labor by opening plants in Maine and Hong Kong to cut costs and avoid unionized workers. Given the extent to which Silicon Valley companies' strategies do exploit workers, here and abroad, while awarding a few workers high compensation packages and job security (conditions that Lecuyer discusses throughout the book), a more sympathetic treatment of workers' resistance to such practices would have yielded a more balanced analysis.
Despite these omissions, I recommend Making Silicon Valley for those who want an up-to-date history of the engineers and entrepreneurs who made the industrial district into a globalized center for the production of integrated circuits, electronics, and computer technologies. I also recommend the book for those who want a thorough, chronological explanation of various component technology including vacuum tubes, transmitter and power-grid tubes, the klystron oscillator, planar processing, and integrated circuits. Making Silicon Valley readers will have a fuller appreciation of the history of the area by supplementing their reading list with social histories like Pellow and Park's (2002). I also hope to see more histories of Silicon Valley and silicon valleys that attend to the corporate leaders who continue to make computers -- and history -- for the rest of us.
The subtle communitarian message that appears in the last sentence of Making Silicon Valley is also worth relating to RCCS's audience of community-minded cyberculture scholars: "Manufacturing districts grow and thrive only so long as they remain communities of learning, practice, and collaboration" (303). To this, I would add that as we document the making of such industrial districts, we include experiences of the individuals and far-flung communities exploited for assembly of its component parts. If the assembly of these components is indeed "delicate," intervention in its connections and circuitry will shape how we make high-tech communities.
Ceruzzi, Paul E. "Moore's Law and Technological Determinism: Reflections on the History of Technology." Technology & Culture, 46(3), 2005: 584-593.
Marvin, Carolyn. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford, 1988.
Pellow, David N., and Park, Lisa Sun-Hee. The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy. New York: NYU, 2002.
Michelle Rodino-Colocino is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on the intersection between gender, labor, and new media. She is currently participating in and researching a neighborhood WiFi initiative in Cincinnati, OH. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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