December 16 is essentially Silicon Valley’s version of the Fourth of July. I’m telling you now so you have time to plan your celebration. Light fireworks. Get drunk (if you’re not pregnant). Grill something. And most of all, say a thank you to the modern startup world’s forefathers: Fred Terman, Hewlett and Packard, Noyce and Moore. Even the original Valley egomaniac so many of them loved to hate: William Shockley.
That’s right, it’s the transistor’s 65th birthday.
In case you don’t know your Valley history, the transistor was really what started it all back in 1947 at Bell Labs in Pennsylvania. This was back when R&D divisions in companies did more than add filters to various photo apps. It’s heralded as one of the most important achievements of the 20th century, and the three scientists who invented it — John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley — were awarded the Nobel Prize.
But what really matters — to me, anyway — was what one of them did after that. Shockley moved to Palo Alto, lured by Fred Terman. He amassed a group of the best talent from universities around the world and brought them to Palo Alto.
Shockley Labs was expected to be the ultimate dream team. On paper this should have been the most phenomenal company in Silicon Valley history. In practice, Shockley was a micromanaging egomaniac. The brains of Shockley Labs left in the first move of “defection capital” Silicon Valley ever saw. They broke the rules of loyalty and company formation and started Fairchild Semiconductor, the first and most iconic of the great Silicon Valley mafias. It would eventually spawn more than fifty companies.
There’s so much to be said about Fairchild, and later Intel, and all of the companies that spun out of them. Their technology, Moore’s Law, and the spirit that built them and so too shaped Silicon Valley. The ethos of equality. The intense all nighter work ethic. The lack of flashy materialism. The casual culture. The growth of venture capital. Collective ownership of a company. The lack of unions in Silicon Valley. Even the idea that money was just a way of keeping score, or the idea that you had to have more than one success to know you were really good. Things that entrepreneurs say today and think are novel. These were all things that Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore talked about decades and decades ago.
Birthed alongside of the transistor itself was the ethos, infrastructure, workflow, the very soul of Silicon Valley — the thing that no other place in the world can capture no matter how hard they try or how many billions in government spending is thrown at it. In so many waves of Silicon Valley innovation, the pioneers aren’t always the ones who benefit financially. Ask Flickr. Or Friendster. Or Alta Vista. But so many companies leave an indelible mark on how the world builds companies, long after the companies themselves are gone.
We owe even the dysfunctional egomaniacs like Shockley a debt of gratitude for amassing so much talent, and in doing so laying the foundation that’s continued to change the world decades later. When you’re in the weeds of building a company, it seems like you’re all alone. But the real uniqueness of Silicon Valley is how everyone — yes, even the Smankers — are really part of a great continuum that keeps paving the way for future generations of dreamers, egomaniacs, outcasts, and geniuses.
(H/T to ReadWrite on the birthday notification)
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]