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Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930-1970

Author(s):Lecuyer, Christophe
Reviewer(s):Bugos, Glenn

Published by EH.NET (February 2008)

Christophe Lecuyer, Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930-1970. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. x + 393 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 0-262-12281-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Glenn Bugos, Moment LLC.

In this remarkable introduction to the early history of Silicon Valley, Christophe Lecuyer weaves a rich tale around the centrality of manufacturing ? sometimes mass manufacturing, but more often batch manufacturing to precision and reliability. He argues that manufacturing expertise diffused through the Valley through tacit knowledge and engineers in motion between firms. Planar technology for manufacturing integrated circuits in the late 1960s, he concludes, represented the pinnacle of manufacturing in Silicon Valley.

Lecuyer has multiple goals for this book. He seeks to define Silicon Valley as an industrial district, akin to the Marshallian industrial districts that economic historians have begun to explore. Also, he integrates into his story the many extant, divergent strands of Silicon Valley historiography. Into his manufacturing-driven narrative, we see the trends other historians have emphasized ? military funding, the shake-out following the McNamara consolidation, the role of Stanford University in generating expertise, and the importance of workplace culture.

His chapters are structured around firm histories, beginning in their start-up years. These are concise histories of the early years of Litton, Fairchild, Varian, and Intel. These firms reflect broader trends in their industry and, Lecuyer shows, their founders thought hard about an ideal of Silicon Valley culture.

The first chapter discusses the power tube industry in the 1930s and 1940s, focusing on Eitel-McCullough in the context of the region’s amateur radio community. Eitel-McCullough’s manufacturing prowess positioned them to become the largest manufacturer of vacuum tubes for radar during World War II. Lecuyer does a great job describing these pre-silicon electronics technologies.

Litton Industries, powered by hard-charging entrepreneur Charlie Litton, is the focus of the next chapter on microwave tubes and magnetrons in the post-war period. The third chapter looks at Varian Associates and the manufacture of klystrons, a type of microwave tube used in defense applications. Perhaps most notable about Varian is the explicit idealization of an engineering republic ? of a cooperative approach to engineering that remained a fixture of Silicon Valley start-up culture.

Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1950s and 1960s adopted the same structure and work culture of the earlier vacuum tube makers, but moved it into an entirely different material and technology ? silicon semiconductors. High frequency silicon transistors were needed for guidance and control systems for missiles and aircraft. As reliability grew paramount, Fairchild developed a new manufacturing technology, leading to the planar process and the integrated circuit.

Chapter 5 looks not at one firm, but rather at the previously highlighted firms in their transition from military to commercial markets, battered by macro-economic forces in the wake of the McNamara procurement reforms of the early 1960s. Eitel merged with Varian, which itself diversified into instrumentation and medical equipment. Fairchild created new customers for its integrated circuits, and moved from a precision manufacturing model to a mass manufacturing model. Litton surrendered to the cyclical nature of its business yet sought to manage it by becoming a defense conglomerate.

Lecuyer ends with a short chapter on Apple Computer and how it shifted these manufacturing ideas into a new generation of personal computing technology. His notes and sources are also fascinating reading, reflecting the richness of primary materials now available on Silicon Valley firms. Lecuyer started this book as a graduate student in the history of science and technology at Stanford University, and is now an economic policy analyst with the University of California.

What about the book that Lecuyer did not write? This book is limited in time. It’s the story of the Valley in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when the leading industrial sector was fairly well defined around tubes and silicon. The explosive growth in the Valley came after this period, when personal computers, software and internetworking soared as industries in the 1980s and 1990s, supplemented by biotechnology and medical devices. Yet Lecuyer expertly shows how the preconditions for these later industries emerged years earlier. More importantly, even within his limited time frame, Lecuyer shows how the concept of “generations” is important in understanding the Valley. Silicon Valley has never been about just silicon. New types of technologies constantly appear, and follow similar cycles of boom and bust, only to be replaced by the next generation of technology.

Furthermore, this is good, but not great business history in that he says little about the rampant innovation in firm structure and financing. A constant refrain is frustration, or glee, in getting stock options, with little discussion of where stock options came from. Still, Lecuyer has a good ear for the importance of customers, and emphasizes the role of marketing and sales people in defining new markets for products. For example, Fairchild wrote “operational notes” that hesitant customers could use to manufacture consumer products around the new silicon chips: what he calls “educating consumers rather than occupying their space” (298).

He neglects broader trends that enabled the rapid growth of electronics manufacturing. The machinery industry that emerged in The Valley of Heart’s Delight, as the agricultural pre-history of Silicon Valley is known, trained a labor force able to build plants around clean, batch processing. The tilt-up architecture that flourished in the Valley enabled constant reconfiguration of laboratory and fabrication space. Lecuyer does discuss Hewlett Packard as an instrumentation company, but says little on the importance of test and measurement precision to other Valley manufacturers. And Lecuyer does discuss Lockheed Missiles and Space, the largest employer in the Valley in the 1960s, but only incidental to his narrative.

This book should become, nonetheless, the new starting point for those seeking to emulate Silicon Valley in their regions. What can they learn? The Valley pioneers truly cared about being able to make the first of anything. Office space was less important than lab space and fab space. Silicon Valley enjoyed less a culture of conspicuous consumption, and more a culture of conspicuous production.

Glenn Bugos is historian with Moment LLC, a corporate history consultancy based in Silicon Valley.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII