Before There Was Facebook: The Seeds Of Silicon Valley

PBS documentary American Experience: Silicon Valley captures the origin of the Northern California technology hub through the eyes of its first startup, Fairchild Semiconductor, and the advent of the microchip and the modern-day entrepreneurial culture.

Before There Was Facebook: The Seeds Of Silicon Valley

Long before Facebook and Google, the entrepreneurial Internet boom of the late ’90s, and the advent of personal computers in the mid-’80s, before the Flower Power movement of the late ’60s, another revolution was brewing in the Bay Area.


PBS’s American Experience: Silicon Valley, which premieres tonight, describes the events that turned Northern California’s rural Santa Clara Valley into a mecca of technological innovation that would overhaul our modern way of life and business culture. It’s this foundation on which the Jobses and Zuckerbergs of the world built their empires.

In 1957, a group of young engineering turks–spearheaded by the brilliant physicist Robert Noyce–dissatisfied with the stodgy corporate practices of the 1950s, defected from heavyweight Shockley Semiconductor to form their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. Their innovative designs for transistors, semiconductors, and invention of the integrated circuit would herald a new era of technology-based industry.

Their actions were more radical than their designs. This was Silicon Valley’s first startup at a time when employees were expected to remain at one company for their entire careers, and adhere to rigid hierarchies. But with the creatives (i.e., scientists and engineers) running the shop, it also paved a new type of business culture. The vertical chain of command that stifled creativity gave way to a flattened hierarchy where ideas could come from anywhere. Talent and progress superseded corporate loyalty. When Fairchild, in turn, grew too rigid, the group broke off again to found Intel.

Randall MacLowry. Photo: Casey McNamara

“One of the documentary’s most important takeaways is that to be a successful and innovative technology company, scientific invention, creativity, and business acumen should be valued equally,” says Randall MacLowry, the film’s producer, director, writer, and editor (along with producer Tracy Heather Strain and writer Michelle Ferrari). “Bob Noyce excelled at all three. Of course, not everyone is Bob Noyce, and he didn’t work alone, but was able to apply these strengths–including his ability to live with risk–to build two wildly successful companies.”

Les Vadasz, who appears in the film, was in the trenches during this time. An engineering manager at Fairchild R&D before becoming a founding member of Intel, Vadasz remembers a feeling of immense possibilities from the burgeoning technology and working with the best minds in the field.

“There were two kinds of changes at that time,” he says. “One was the constant advance–that is happening even today–that we can double the complexity of microchips roughly every two years. The other, in the mid to late ’60’s, was the emergence of MOS technology, which promised even higher complexity products and faster, cheaper memory. At the time, computer memory was made out of magnetic cores. We were trying to make semiconductor memory. So, we were trying to replace one technology with another. Since we expected computers to be a major growth business, and every computer needs a huge amount of memory, this is where the business opportunity was. But we were far more concerned about making the product than making history.”


During his research, MacLowry was particularly taken with how integral military and NASA support was to the Valley’s growth, and how its egalitarian business culture began in companies like Fairchild.

“It is important for the new blood to understand that they do not exist in a vacuum, and that many of their experiences are not unique,” he says. “There is a history to Silicon Valley, and many people laid the foundation for the pursuit of their dreams.”

[Lead photo: The Fairchild 8, who left the lab of Nobel Prize winner William Shockey to form Silicon Valley’s first startup, Fairchild Semiconductor. Clockwise from top: Eugene Kleiner, Gordon Moore, C. Sheldon Roberts, Jay Last, Robert Noyce, Jean Hoerni, Julius Blank, and Victor Grinich. 1960. Photo courtesy of Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos]

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.