Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 423:
TERMAN AND SILICON VALLEY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 423.

Today, let's meet the man who built Silicon Valley. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My wife and I often drove down from Berkeley to her parents' house on the coast during the late 1950s. The road passed through the hot, sleepy valley around San Jose. The valley had a new IBM plant and a small state university. Stanford lay off to the right. The yellow hills on either side shimmered in the summer heat. It was a land of wine and artichokes.

Today that valley is built up, hill to hill. We call it Silicon Valley. It seems changed beyond all recognition. Yet that name was starting to fit it even then. To see why, let's meet Frederick Terman, who joined Stanford in 1925.

Terman grew up in the Valley, and he grew up with electricity. Together, he and Herbert Hoover's son built a radio transmitter. Terman went off to MIT for an engineering Ph.D. Then, back at Stanford, he unleashed a remarkable vision. It began with a simple enough remark that he "would like to take the boys out to see ... what the world off campus was like." That obviously meant ties with industry. But Terman took it much further.

He began by giving lab space to two engineers who wanted to improve airplane navigation. They invented the Klystron tube and set up a company to produce it. By 1940 Klystron research at Stanford was giving America its edge in the microwave field. In 1937 Terman encouraged two former students to form a local company. Their names were Hewlett and Packard.

Terman insisted that engineering should interact with chemistry, math, and physics. That paid off in a big way when Shockley came into the Valley with his Nobel Laureate for the transistor. Shockley put together a strong team. One member had just helped invent the integrated circuit. Shockley was a hard person to work with. The team soon walked off to create another company. Then it, in turn, split into eight more companies.

So the Valley grew. It was wild and unstable. It was young and volatile. My wife and I didn't know it then, but dozens of firms were already giving America its dominance in computers and semiconductors among the artichokes and wineries.

And we're told this about Terman: "He was studious, soft-spoken, and forever self-effacing ... a brilliant teacher ... a profound visionary." So Terman is an apt hero. Others found fame and wealth in the Valley. But what they claimed, he gave away. In the end it was because he served others more than he served himself that Terman could make all this happen.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Williams, J.C., The Rise of Silicon Valley. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Spring/Summer 1990, pp. 18-24.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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