Secrets of Silicon Valley

If you look carefully on the back way into Stanford University, you can still see the barn on Stock Farm Road that is all that remains of the racetrack where, in 1878, Eadweard Muybridge invented the motion picture.

The new technology had its beginnings in an argument between rich men who owned race horses, East Coast vs. West.  Did all four feet of a fast-trotting horse ever leave the ground at the same time?

Leland Stanford, railroad builder, governor of California, San Francisco horse breeder, man of science, was convinced they did.  In 1873 he hired Muybridge, a local bookseller, inventor and famous photographer of the West, to prove it. (Apparently, the $25,000 bet is just a legend.)

Muybridge had emigrated from England, arriving in San Francisco in 1855, when he was 25.  Somewhere along the way, he had become an adept of the new art of photography, which from the 1850s on, was, like railroads and the telegraph, sweeping the country.  He opened a bookshop, but prospered as a commercial photographer.

By the 1870s, plenty of people were working on “instantaneous photography,” meaning quicker shutters and faster film. Between photographing sky-scapes and the transcontinental railroad, chronicling California’s last Indian war, making some of the earliest photographs of Yosemite Valley, documenting everyday life in Central America, and recording panoramic views of San Francisco, Muybridge became fascinated with the possibility of “stopping” motion.

With the assistance of Stanford’s Central Pacific railroad engineers, he experimented and invented a series of electrical shutters — little magnetically-operated guillotines of light at the back of lenses– that permitted him to record exposures of as little as a thousandth of a second.

Muybridge’s first success came in 1873 — a single frame of Stanford’s fastest horses racing on a track. “I’ve got the pictures of the horses jumping from the ground!” he shouted from the darkroom as the image first appeared. But skeptics took the photograph for a fake

Not for another five years would Muybridge rig a dozen cameras side-by-side along the race track on Stanford’s 8,000-acre estate in Palo Alto, thirty miles south of San Francisco.  Each camera was triggered by a wire stretched across the track.  A white wall opposite, marked off like a giant ruler, served as an outdoor studio.

Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh went the shutters, as a horse pulling a sulky trotted through the gate. In his darkroom a few minutes later, Muybridge found that he had captured motion photographically. Almost beside the point was that all four feet were in the air.

All this (and a great deal more) is related in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by Rebecca Solnit. The larger-than-life Muybridge has captured many imaginations over the course of the past century — artists, poets, even composer Philip Glass wrote an opera in 1983 (with a libretto by David Byrne!) about the photographer who killed his wife’s lover.

And Timothy Sturgeon, when set out to undermine the myth of “instant industrialization” of the Bay Area in his essay “How Silicon Valley Came to Be” — Hewlett and Packard in their garage in 1938, the Fairchild Semiconductor walkout from Shockley Transistor Corp. in 1957 — pushed back the frontier only as far the early days of radio telegraphy.  That was when the Stanford university administration and faculty combined to start Federal Telegraph Co in 1909 and Lee DeForest invented the vacuum tube amplifier in its Palo Alto lab in 1912, with a view to replacing Morse Code with voice transmission. (Especially interesting is Sturgeon’s account of how the attempted dominion of monopoly-minded Radio Corporation of America, the Microsoft of its day, gave rise in the 1930s and 1940s to the cooperative ethos that even today characterizes most Bay Area firms — common technical standards, relatively open communications, easy movement between firms.)

But it is Solnit, a historian of landscapes and technology, who best conveys the anything-goes atmosphere of California after the Gold Rush, after the Civil War, and the unpredictable ways in which it led eventually to the formation of two industries that, by the ends of the 20th century, had “most powerfully defined contemporary life” — Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Stanford turned his Palo Alto ranch into a university after the death of his son. Muybridge’s stop-action photographic techniques were quickly adopted by Thomas Edison, but in 1910 they had returned to southern California when D. W. Griffth brought a troupe of around 30 actors to stay in the picturesque little town of Hollywood. “Like a bullet shot through a book,” she writes of Muybridge, “he ripped through all the central stories of his time.”  In 1872, the man photographed a horse — and before long, “a new world had opened up, for science, for art, for entertainment, for consciousness, and an old world had retreated farther.”

So much for looking backwards.  For a forward-looking glimpse of Silicon Valley and the transformation that is taking place there today, turn to AnnaLee Saxenian’s The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy.  Immigrants to California once again are transforming the technological landscape — this time by leaving it.

Who are the new Argonauts?  Saxenian says they are “a small but meaningful proportion of individuals who left their home countries for greater opportunities abroad [who] have now reversed course, transforming a ‘brain drain’ into a ‘brain circulation.’”

The starting point was the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 (the “Immigration and Nationality Act”), which abolished national quotas, restricted immigration from Mexico and lifted the ban on immigration from Asia. The statute also established the H-1b visa for those possessing special skills, allowing growing firms to search abroad for talent.  In 1965 Taiwan had sent 47 scientists and engineers to the United State; in 1967, more than 1300. Other nations followed suit.

Once significant numbers of foreign nationals were present in the Bay Area, they began to form virtual communities, professional associations and alumni groups The Israelis, Iranians and French were first, according to Saxenian, followed in short order by the Chinese and Indians. (For the Asians, in particular, such groups served initially as a defense against a professional world dominated by Caucasian managers.)  By 2000, groups as diverse as the Korean Information Technology Network, the American Association of Russian Expatriates, Silicon Armenia and the Vietnamese Silicon Valley Network were offering extensive training and networking opportunities to their members.

At various points, opportunities at home increased dramatically — for the Taiwanese and the Koreans almost immediately, for the Israelis and Chinese in the 1980s, the Indians in the 1990s.For example, six Taiwanese engineers quit Fairchild in 1984 to return home to form three semiconductor companies. Little more than a decade later,  they were among the biggest and most successful semiconductor firms in the world. The same year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the People’s Republic spun off an enterprise it called Legend Group; twenty-one  years later, renamed Lenovo, it would buy IBM’s PC  business to become the biggest personal computer manufacturer in the world. Gradually, the various diasporas were reversed.

These new areas don’t replace Silicon Valley, says Saxenian, even as they siphon off many of its manufacturing and coding activities to lower-cost locations around the world. The newest regions will become competitors in particular technologies in their turn. The emerging transnational community is no longer a simple matter of center and periphery, but rather a far more complex matrix of aspirations and capabilities. The valley’s advantages may not be immutable, but they are durable, and much the same as they were in the time of Leland Stanford and Eadweard Muybridge.  She quotes Eric Benhamou, chairman of 3Com and former CEO of Palm Computing:

“There’s something that the Internet has not replaced and has not solved, and that’s why Silicon Valley is so essential.  There’s nothing that can replace the chance encounter, face-to-face discussion between business people from slightly different areas, from slightly different perspectives. You cannot convey passion and excitement even across the high quality of video-conferencing as you can here face-to-face. Often these breakthroughs occur in high-spirited meeting between passionate people. [If you] live 5,000 miles apart and never see each other, these meetings will not occur as often and they will not create the same sparks.”

Not everyone who visits Silicon Valley brings home the fleece. Muybridge, too, returned home, to live out his final decade as a low-key celebrity in his natal village near London. When Solnit visited his boyhood home a century later, she found it had been turned into a computer store.