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Why Is It Called Silicon Valley?

Sarah Lai Stirland
A sculpture in Mountain View marks the original location of transistor manufacturer Shockley Labs, which gave birth to what we now call Silicon Valley.

Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. Nastassya Saad wonders about the origins of the world-famous moniker for the South Bay.

Before Steve Jobs co-founded Apple and before Mark Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook, the physicist Willian Shockley founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, California. That was after he quit Bell Labs on the East Coast, where his team, which included fellow physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, discovered the transistor effect. They unveiled their discovery in 1947, and it changed the world.

What they will do is to take away from man the drudgery of stooge mental work, just as the motor, the application of power, took away from man the problem of using his muscles to replace things that could be done by draft animals and machines,” Shockley predicted in a recording from around that time. 

The Transformative Role Of The Transistor

It turns out that he was right. Transistors are in every computer and electronic device, and they save us tons of labor. They’re like mini on-off switches that manipulate the flow of electricity in order to tell those devices what to do.

Take a touchtone phone. It can have dozens of transistors. Together, those switches tell the phone how to dial a number, light up and hang up.

Now fast forward fifty years. That iPhone 11 is able to do so many things, so fast because it has 8.5 billion transistors. They’re all grouped together on what we laymen call computer chips.

They’re made of Silicon, a crystal-like material that’s the most common element on earth — that is, apart from oxygen. 

Now, that answers half of the question: Silicon makes computers work. So… why this Valley?

Stanford University plays a major role here. It has provided a steady flow of first electronics, and then computer science talent to all kinds of startups for more than a century

And, remember William Shockley? In 1955, he founded Shockley Labs in Mountain View. 

The Archetype Of The Monster Founder

But starting what’s perhaps a Silicon Valley tradition, he was a notoriously horrible boss. He was also a vocal eugenicist.

So in 1957, a group of eight employees of his quit and formed their own company — Fairchild Semiconductor.

“Fairchild blew up and scattered entrepreneurs all over the Valley. So they're at one point, the South Bay had 150 different semiconductor companies, including famous ones like Intel and Advanced Micro Devices,” explains Michael Malone, author of “The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley.”

There was one more piece of the puzzle: In 1971, local journalist Don Hoefler wrote a series of articles for “Microelectronic News” about the rise of these companies in the South Bay.

The official story is a friend of Hoefler’s — Ralph Vaerst — suggested he name the series “Silicon Valley, USA.” But Malone, who knew Hoefler, offers another theory: 

“The unofficial one was he was at the Marriott Hotel in Santa Clara next to Great America. And he heard a couple of salesmen sitting there having drinks in the lobby. And one of them said, ‘Boy, there's a lot of electronics companies around here now. And the other guy says, Yeah, it's a regular “Silicon Valley.”’”

The bottom line is that without all this silicon it would have been much harder and more time consuming to produce this story. 

Crosscurrents Hey AreaHistory
Sarah Lai Stirland is a freelance journalist and editor living in the South Bay. Her reporting background is in technology, science writing, law and policy. For the past few years, she's written about issues related to aging.