Steve Jobs’ Path: from Marconi to the iPhone

More on the extraordinary genius loci of Silicon Valley.

The site named “Silicon Valley’s Birthplace” is the HP Garage in Palo Alto, where David Packard and William Hewlett formed Hewlett-Packard in 1938, and developed their first products.

the "birthplace of Silicon Valley," Hewlett & Packard's garage at 367 Addison Ave, Palo Alto

"The birthplace of electronics" 813 Emerson Ave., Palo Alto

I was fascinated to learn, via some online geo-roaming, that this is only three blocks away from the site of the Electronics Research Laboratory where, around 1911, the “father of radio,” Lee De Forest invented the triode vacuum tube and the amplifier, laying the foundation of the electronic era.

Silicon Valley is often considered to have been essentially “founded” by Frederick Terman, the Dean of the Stanford University’s School of Engineering through whom Hewlett and Packard met in 1935, who attracted large military research funding to Stanford, and championed the process of research commercialization.

However, recent scholarship such as Timothy Sturgeon’s “How Silicon Valley Came to Be” in Martin Kenney, ed., Understanding Silicon Valley (2000) has revealed the long-overlooked earlier era of the Valley’s technology ecosystem, starting particularly with the founding of the Federal Telegraph Corporation in Palo Alto in 1909.  Sturgeon notes that all the features later associated with Silicon Valley were present on a small scale even then — military research funding, university involvement, ferocious patent wars, international industrial competition and industrial policy, etc.  Prefiguring Terman, in 1909 the president of Stanford at that time, David Starr Jordan, had backed the startup that would become Federal Telegraph.

Into this scene appeared one of history’s greatest inventors and Edison-esque prodigous tinkerers, Lee de Forest, in 1910.  After receiving a B.S. and PhD from Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School, de Forest came to Chicago, and worked as a translator of science articles for popular magazines.  However, as described in Steven Johnson’s recent, wonderful Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, “de Forest’s true passion lay in the cabinet of wonders he had assembled in his bedroom on Washington Boulevard:  batteries, spark gap transmitters, electrodes — all the building blocks that would be assembled in the coming decade to invent the age of electronics.”

Lee De Forest (1873 - 1961), the "father of radio"

De Forest came to San Francisco and began working for the Federal Telegraph Company of Palo Alto. At the time, the U.S. Government was anxious to develop new ship-to-shore radio signalling technology, and not lose out to the technology leaders such as Marconi of Britain.  FTC joined the race to win the lucrative Navy contracts on offer.

In FTC’s Electronics Research Laboratory, at Channing Ave and Emerson St. in Palo Alto, the explorations de Forest had begun in Chicago eventually yielded the triode, or three-element vacuum tube, and the amplifier.  Although De Forest did not initially fully understand the science of how these worked, or anticipate their more valuable applications, the inventions revolutionalized radio technology and laid the foundation of the transistor and all of modern electronics.

The connection of De Forest and Hewlett-Packard to nearly the same site in Palo Alto is not remarked on by Johnson in that book.  However, the close coincidence is powerfully suggestive of one of Johnson’s main themes:  that certain locations are extraordinarily fertile innovation loci, due to dense interconnection of creative elements.

One possible factor in the extraordinary coincidence is that both Lee de Forest’s laboratory and Hewlett & Packard’s garage were located on the West edge of Professorville, the residential area of Palo Alto where much of the Stanford faculty and administrators have traditionally lived.  That represented one of the greatest concentrations of technical and entrepreneurial talent and capital to be found in the country, and de Forest & H-P’s sites were directly on the path between those people and the Palo Alto train station, downtown Palo Alto, and the main approach to Stanford.  If they had scoured the country for a better precise place in which to have easy, frequent, and serendipitous contact with highly suitable collaborators and backers, they might not have done better.

Palo Alto, showing locations of de Forest and Hewlett & Packard's original labs

Palo Alto, showing locations of de Forest and Hewlett & Packard's original labs, in between "Professorville" and downtown / Stanford / train station

There’s a core concept in economic development theory, for how an initial event such as the establishment of QWERTY keyboards or the siting of a factory constrains the pattern of future activity:  path dependence. In the case of de Forest and Hewlett-Packard’s neighborhood laboratories, there may have been also a literal path dependence — the pathway of Palo Alto’s and Stanford’s elite walking home past their door.

Seventy years after de Forest, another restless genius, a local kid named Steve Jobs, began in junior high-school to tinker with electronics parts scavenged from school and from the plentiful electronic spare-parts outlets in the area.  He went to meetings of the Hewlett-Packard Explorers Club, where company scientists gave lectures, at the new headquarters building a short ways from the original HP Garage, and at one point he called the home of Bill Hewlett himself to ask for some needed parts. Hewlett gave him the parts, and also a summer job on an an assembly-line building HP frequency counters.

Jobs later worked weekends at electronic-parts outlet Halted in Sunnyvale, and frequented the king of the electronics parts warehouses, Haltek in Mountain View, near where Google is located today.  Haltek’s vast holdings extended even to vintage vacuum tubes of the De Forest era.  It was possibly the world’s greatest electronics tool kit, and was free for anyone to walk into and hang around as long as they wanted.

Just like de Forest, Hewlett and Packard, and countless others innovators who came to this place, Jobs was like the biblical seed sown on rich soil.  When Jobs moved to Mountain View at age five, he landed directly on arguably the century’s most fertile place for technological innovation, a place of uniquely dense recombination and interwoven pathways.  A hundred years after Marconi, once again a revolutionary radio technology, this time the smart phone, emanated from the Valley, led by Jobs’ iPhone.  From the same ground walked by de Forest in 1910, genius had soared.  This year, a funeral service at Stanford’s Memorial Hall, Jobs was laid to rest, just a short walk away from de Forest’s Emerson Ave.

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