NPR Talk of the Nation Science Friday

Interview: Leslie Berlin discusses the history of Silicon Valley.(2:00-3:00 PM)(Broadcast transcript)(Obituary)(Audio file)

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For the rest of the hour, we're going to look back not too long ago to a time when the word--you know, that phrase `Silicon Valley' really didn't mean anything, when the land that's now filled with high-tech companies, such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Google, was nothing but orchards. This week, memorial services were held for Jack Kilby, Nobel laureate who was credited with the invention of the integrated circuit, really is a way of arranging a set of solid-state components, you know, transistors and the stuff like that on to a single chip and doing away with the bulky wiring, shrinking down the sizes of the components so they can fit onto a tiny little chip. That invention and the series of other inventions by Kilby, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, changed California and the world as we know it.

Joining me now to talk about those early days in Silicon Valley and what it led to is Leslie Berlin. She is the author of a new book entitled, "The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley." She's a visiting scholar in the history and philosophy of science and technology at Stanford University. And she is project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives. She joins us from a studio at Stanford.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. LESLIE BERLIN (Author, "The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley"): Hi. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: How are you?

Ms. BERLIN: I'm doing very well, thanks.

FLATOW: When would you say the--actually Silicon Valley started? Is there a date that folks out there think this is the date that Silicon Valley started?

Ms. BERLIN: People often trace the start of Silicon Valley to the first start-up that Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore, along with six of their friends, started in September of 1957, and the reason people often trace it back to that point is that Fairchild Semiconductor, when it basically dissolved, ended up populating the valley with all sorts of little semiconductor companies. And semiconductors, of course, are made out of silicon, and that's the origins of the name Silicon Valley. But historians prefer to look back a little further to the end of World War II and the start of the space race and government funding for electronics that really helped the region take off with companies like Hewlett-Packard.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the history a little bit. You had--let's go back as far as--speaking of World War II, post-World War II, let's talk about Bell Labs and the invention of the transistor, the first solid state devices that came out. Bob Noyce and others broke off from Bell Labs after the transistor and they came out to California where they were--they were called something terrible, weren't they?

Ms. BERLIN: They, actually, broke away from one of the founders of a company called Shockley Labs, William Shockley, who had been one of the inventors of the transistor at Bell Labs. Noyce and his friends never worked at Bell Labs, though Noyce did have a job offer there. So, yes, they left, in 1957, and were promptly dubbed the `traitorous eight' by William Shockley. This was really one of the first times that you saw this startup or spinoff, phenomenon that we now consider such a part of Silicon Valley, happening, and one of the things that was so exciting for me to find was the notes that one of these eight young men who left took where his boss's boss called the group of them into a room and essentially read them the Riot Act, saying, `Your names are mud.' He ended with `You should consider the community reaction. This is a disgraceful act.' The notion of leaving a company was just not out there at that point.

FLATOW: You wrote "The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley. …

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