The History of Silicon Valley

What caused the massive growth of Santa Clara Valley's computer industry?

The Career of Robert Noyce

Robert Noyce, founder of Fairchild Semiconductors and co-founder of Intel.

Robert Noyce grew up in Grinnell, Iowa. The son of a preacher, he went into Grinnell College as a physics major. Despite nearly being expelled from the college due to a luau prank, he managed to gain access to some of the first transistors to be produced from Bell Labs. This developed a fascination within him, moving him to pursue a Ph.D. at MIT in 1948. He found that his knowledge of transistors often went further than that of many of his professors, pushing him to more quickly pursue a career in the field. He began at Shockley Semiconductors, moving to Southern California in the Palo Alto area. While working at Shockley Semiconductors, Robert Noyce felt frustration toward the manner in which the company was being run. Instead of trying to make change within, he teamed up with several other researchers; they left Shockley and founded Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957. At Fairchild, he pioneered the development of semiconductors, beginning with the creation of the integrated chip, which held several semiconductors on one piece of silicon. He ran the company with leniency and a distinctly different form of business management, putting himself among his employees. Even so, many of his employees “defected” from Fairchild and began their own semiconductor companies. This spark of start-ups in the Santa Clara Valley helped to give it the nickname of “Silicon Valley,” making it America’s capital of technological development. Even Noyce defected from Fairchild, his own company, in 1968 to form Intel with another of the original Shockley defectors, Gordon Moore. While at Intel, Noyce continued his policy of a “casual working atmosphere,” and oversaw Ted Hoff’s creation of the microprocessor in 1971, an invention that rocked the very foundations of Silicon Valley’s future.

Notable Startups

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc.

The first microprocessor created by Ted Hoff at Intel was the Intel 8008. This chip sparked an air of fierce competition among the many startups of the valley, leading many to rise and many to fall. One famous example of a startup of this era is Traf-O-Data, started by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, in Seattle. While not in the Palo Alto area, it would not exist without Silicon Valley’s continual development of the computer industry. Several hobbyist groups set up shop in the valley, such as the Homebrew Computer Club and the Southern California Computer Society, and magazines like Creative Computing and Radio-Electronics. Xerox also set up shop in Silicon Valley, with their Palo Alto Research Center, which, in 1974 released the Xerox Alto computer. In the same year, Intel released the 8080 microprocessor, which fueled new companies further. The next year, Popular Electronics wrote an article popularizing the MITS Altair personal computer. Microsoft, renamed from Traf-O-Data, wrote the first version of BASIC for the Altair, setting themselves as the foremost software provider for the hobbyist computer. After its release, the Altair inspired other personal computer efforts, such as those created by IMSAI and Apple (the latter being the Apple I, created by Steve Wozniak in 1976 and first shown at the Homebrew Computer Club). From this burst of interest in personal computing, companies like Commodore and Apple Computer made strides selling their machines to businesses around the country, and eventually, the world. Commodore introduced the PET computer in 1977, with its signature 70s style, and Apple introduced their Apple II computer, setting up offices in Cupertino. Both companies found massive success in this new market, with both large corporations and small-time hobbyists eating up their products. One piece of software in particular, VisiCalc by Personal Software, helped to secure the Apple II’s position as the ultimate business machine. Microsoft went on to partner with IBM in 1981 to develop an operating system for the new IBM PC called MS-DOS, pushing back against Apple’s business domination.

The Valley Today

Apple Headquarters, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA.

Apple: Still located in Cupertino, California, Apple continues to make great strides in the personal computer market. Though suffering a bout of lousy sales in the 1990s, they emerged in the 21st century as one of the most innovative computer companies in the United States. Releasing the iMac computer and Mac OS X built the foundations on which they would build their technological empire. The release of the iPod in 2001 brought the world of portable music to millions across the world, transforming them from a computer company to a “consumer electronics company,” and allowing them to hold the largest share of the portable music player market. They went on to release the iPhone in 2006, bringing smartphones to the mass market. To this day, the iPhone remains one of the best selling digital products on the market.

Microsoft: Microsoft retained their position as the foremost software provider on PC hardware. Their operating system MS-DOS laid the foundations of Windows, gaining most of its traction in 1990 with the release of Windows 3. Windows 95, released in 1995, almost single handedly overtook all other operating systems for PCs, such as IBM’s OS/2, and took the largest share of the OS market. Through the 21st century, several versions of Windows have been released. Though a couple of these releases have faced scrutiny, in hindsight and at the time of their release, Microsoft has held a relatively steady 85-90% of the OS market over the 21st century. In recent years, this success has carried over to their PC production; with the release of the Surface line of computers, Microsoft has also become a consumer electronics company, and a force to be reckoned with.

Summary of Reasoning

Several factors contributed to the rapid growth of Silicon Valley over the last 50 years. These include the introduction of the semiconductor business to the valley, the revolutionary new authority styles at these businesses, and the eagerness of businessmen to make a name for themselves in a new, cutthroat industry. Not one element can be pinned down as the sole cause; the development of Silicon Valley is too complex to narrow down that far. Instead, these individual factors should be considered equally responsible for the creation of America's thriving computer industry. Where it goes in the future will depend on the precedents set in the past being upheld through the changing economy, and the retention of unorthodox management styles being considered more important than common business greed and individual interest.

Works Cited

"Apple's Headquarters in Cupertino."
Freiberger, Paul, and Michael Swaine. Fire in the Valley: The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer. The Pragmatic Programmers, 2014.
Landau, Ted. “Apple’s Six Best Decisions of the 21st Century.” The Mac Observer,
“Operating System Market Share.” Net Market Share,
“Photo of Robert Noyce.”
“Photo of Steve Wozniak.”
“Robert Noyce.” PBS, 1999,
Wolfe, Tom. “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley.” Stanford,