I’ve focused mostly on works by journalists and others who were there on the scene, as opposed to more academic treatments. Many of the books seem dated today, but the history is much more important than it might seem to be at first glance. Nearly everything that’s happening in tech today has antecedents and analogies from 10 and 20 and 30 years ago. And in such a young industry, there are still a lot of people who remember those formative moments well, and will hold it against you — maybe even use it against you — if you don’t.
In a field dominated by journalists, any study of the history of Silicon Valley should start with a magazine article by perhaps the greatest literary journalist of our time, Tom Wolfe. In a 1983 Esquire piece called “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce,” Wolfe offers a highly engaging profile of the charismatic founder of Intel and tells the story of the founding of the computer chip business. It’s a terrific tale: A group of young geniuses, many still in their 20s, follow the great Bell Labs engineer and transistor inventor William Shockley to start Shockley Transistor. Soon frustrated with the controlling and self-centered leader, a group of them, led by Noyce, persuade a sleepy East Coast camera company to underwrite them, and dump Shockley to start Fairchild Semiconductor, which later gave birth to Intel, AMD, LSI Logic, and most of the rest of the chip business. In the style of The Right Stuff, Wolfe captures the spirit and culture of Noyce and his crowd in a way that’s never been equaled, and is as good a read today as it was 25 years ago.
Although the semiconductor business emerged in the 1960s, its cultural roots stretch back to the ’50s, when earnest Midwesterners and ambitious European immigrants worked on esoteric technologies that were, at first, primarily used to fight the Cold War. The personal computer, which was at the heart of the second great wave of Silicon Valley innovation, was created mostly in the 1970s, but its ethic was very much of the ’60s. When, as a reporter, I started covering Silicon Valley in 1990, one of the first things I read was Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine. First published in 1984 and reissued and updated in 1999, it’s a terrific account of the nerds and counterculture tech-heads who upended a computer culture defined by massive, multimillion-dollar mainframes and the starched-shirts corporations that made them or bought them. Here is Bill Gates, barely out of his teens, securing a deal to provide software he hadn’t yet written for a hobbyist device that had no apparent purpose, and then lecturing others in the tiny club of tinkerers that software ought to be paid for. Here is Steve Wozniak, ever disheveled, playing practical jokes and having fun even as he designed the guts of the first great PC, the Apple II. Here is Doug Engelbart, an almost-forgotten hero, giving a 1968 demo of almost every important technology that defines the PC today. The hardcover collector’s edition is worth its relatively steep price ($95 and up on Amazon.com) for the pictures alone. It is a most refreshing reminder that not so long ago, Silicon Valley was not about the Series A funding and the big score — but rather about the big idea.
John Markoff, who was Freiberger’s predecessor as technology writer at the San Francisco Examiner and has for years manned the high-tech beat for the New York Times, takes some of the themes of Fire in the Valley one step further in What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. As the title suggests, Markoff argues that the birth of the PC was directly linked to the drug-fueled, antiwar spirit of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, and he focuses on Engelbart as its embodiment. The thesis is not entirely convincing, in part because it ignores the many important figures who were not part of the Bay Area counterculture. But the book is full of great stories, and on one large point Markoff is surely right: Creativity in technology, as in any other field, blossoms most spectacularly beyond the walls of large corporations and government bureaucracies.