Investigating Technology and the Remaking of AmericaHistorians/History
tags: interviews, Silicon Valley, technology history
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, 3rd Act, Billmoyers.com, Alternet, Slate, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights and the history of science. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
An agricultural and ranching valley in Northern California, the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” became the cradle for technological innovation and manufacture that reshaped America in the decades following the Second World War and led to the Information Age. By the 1970s, with the upsurge in silicon chip makers there, a writer labeled the area Silicon Valley, and the name stuck. Integrated circuits, microprocessors and microcomputers were among the technologies developed in the Valley.
As a result of this work, we now carry supercomputers--smart phones—that have more power than the computers that made possible the American journey to the moon a half century ago. And it’s possible now to access a wealth of information through these devices and our computers, a realization of the vision of legendary MIT professor, engineer, and computational pioneer Vannevar Bush. In 1945, Bush wrote of his dream for “the memex,” an office machine that would organize and hold all human knowledge. Now we have the Internet.
Many of the major innovators of Silicon Valley dreamt of making the world better through technology by connecting people and making available a world of information. In recent years, however, the optimism about technology has faded with increased concerns about privacy, monopolization, disinformation, toxic social media platforms, and other issues.
In her lively and extensively researched book The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America (Penguin Press, 2019), acclaimed History Professor Margaret O’Mara chronicles the story of the Valley from the wartime era of Vannevar Bush to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to more recent innovators, such as Mark Zuckerberg, as she tackles the origins of emerging questions today about dark side of the technology.
In this comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, Professor O’Mara lays out the political and historical context of technological advances over the past seven decades. She shares engaging profiles of many of the leading figures in technology from engineers and scientists to venture capitalists who made many of the achievements possible. Her writing is based on rigorous archival research as well as dozens of interviews, original research of company and personal records, and many other materials.
Before graduate school, Professor O’Mara worked in the Clinton-Gore White House as a policy analyst specializing in private-public partnerships. She brings that expertise to The Code as she details the often overlooked but critical role of massive federal government funding of technology in the wake of the Second World War Two with the nuclear arms race, the Cold War, and the space race—an infusion of funding that continues to the present. She pays particular attention to the politicians and lobbyists who were often enthralled by high tech and made possible special government treatment for this unique industry with generous funding as well as tax breaks, lack of regulation, trade deals, and more.
Written for scholars and general readers alike, The Code puts a human face on the development of our technology today as it chronicles major developments and illuminates the personalities who made our high-tech world possible. The book will serve as an important reference for all who study the history of technology and politics, and for those who want to understand how we got to the questions about omnipresent technology that we grapple with today.
Margaret O’Mara is the Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in U.S. political and economic history, urban and metropolitan history, and the history of technology. Her other books include Cities of Knowledge (Princeton, 2005) and Pivotal Tuesdays (Penn Press, 2015). She has also taught history at Stanford University. She earned her doctorate in history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Professor O’Mara is also contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, and her writing also has appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, American Prospect, and Pacific Standard, among others. In addition to teaching, she speaks regularly to academic, civic, and business audiences. She lives near Seattle with her husband and two daughters.
Professor O’Mara generously discussed her background as a historian and The Code at her office at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for meeting with me Professor O’Mara and congratulations on your groundbreaking history of technology, The Code. Before getting to your book, I wanted to ask first about how you came to be a history professor. When you were young, did you think about being a historian?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: No, that wasn’t the first sort of thing I saw myself doing. The first time I thought about it, I wanted to be an astronaut or a doctor or other things that five-year-olds want to do.
I was really involved in theater when I was a young teen and I was a theater kid, so I wanted to be an actor. My mother was a professional actor. So many members of my family have done things that involve standing up in front of people and performing in some way. We have actors, we have musicians. My brother's a professional rock musician, and he's way cooler than me. My father is a retired clergyman who stood in front of people. My grandfather was an elected official and civil servant in the U.K. My grandmother was a concert pianist.
When I think about the larger ecosystem of my two families, what I do as a professor seems [natural] because I stand up in front of people and teach or I speak to groups of people. I came into graduate school from the very beginning with a very public facing history in mind. My goal was to be a historian who was speaking to policymaking and public audiences because I'd come from policymaking. I think that's animated everything I've done ever since.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing that background. Did you get your undergraduate degree in history then?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I did. I went to Northwestern partially because it was on my radar screen when I was a teenage theater kid and wanted to be a theater major and they've got a renowned theater program. But by the time I was applying to college, I realized I was going to do something else. I didn't know what, but I originally was an English major and then I added history as a second major. In little ways, I realized that so much of what I loved about literature was its history and I saw these texts as historical and material culture of the past, and reflections and depictions of the past. And that's really what interested me the most.
And, reflecting back on it, you realize when you're young, you sometimes have experiences and don't realize how formative they are. I went to Little Rock Central High School, the site of the famous desegregation crisis in 1957 in which the governor called out the Arkansas National Guard troops to prevent the integration of this Southern high school. And then Eisenhower had to call in federal troops to enforce the integration order. This was a seminal moment in the struggle to integrate public schooling in the South.
My graduating class was exactly 30 years after the crisis at Central High. The Little Rock Nine, the nine African American students who integrated the school, came back as a group for the first time that year to visit the school. I remember vividly their visit. They walked down the hallways and were welcomed and celebrated at this place, in the space that had been so incredibly hostile to them.
Robin Lindley: Were there many black students in the school when you graduated?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Yes. It was majority minority by then. It spanned the socioeconomic spectrum, was multiracial, and produced many national merit scholars every year, and also had a lot of kids who were living in poverty, and then every stop in between. It was a really fantastic, amazing high school.
Robin Lindley: You were raised in Little Rock then?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Yes. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. And so Bill Clinton, the person who was governor when I was growing up, was someone I knew because Little Rock is tiny. It may be 200,000 people now, but it was about 150,000 people when I was growing up there, and yet it was the biggest city in the state. There was a kind of intimacy and familiarity with which everyone knew one another, including the Clintons. That cannot be overstated. It was really a very small stage.
Robin Lindley: So Bill and Hillary Clinton were a real presence as you grew up?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Oh, absolutely. We lived in the same neighborhood. They were younger than my parents and Chelsea is younger than me, so we didn't socialize, but we knew lots of friends in common. It was just a small town.
As a side note, I will say that Bill Clinton is an extraordinary figure and so is Hillary. From a very early point, even when he was the governor of this tiny state, he was so extraordinarily charismatic. He just glows with charisma. You always remember every interaction with Bill Clinton, even when he was governor of Arkansas.
Robin Lindley: We were at a rally for him in Seattle in 1992, and he just happened to walk by and we shook his hand. He was extremely enthusiastic and my wife Betsy said she felt this electricity emanating from him.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Exactly. He's a remarkable politician. When I tell people how he’s mesmerizing and magnetic, they think about his problematic record with women, but it's something that transcends that. He’s always in campaign mode, seeking your vote. He always expresses this intense interest in you and he wants to know exactly what you are up to and that makes you feel so incredibly important. That’s a talent.
So all this is related to the question of growing up in this place that was very historically resonant. I was part of that experience and then someone I knew become president.
Robin Lindley: How did you get involved in politics?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: After I graduated from Northwestern, I worked on the campaign for Clinton. That was partially because I was a history major and didn't have a job. I tried to do this corporate recruiting and hadn't gotten hired mostly because I had my intellectual passions but hadn't really figured out my professional ones.
If you had asked me then if I wanted to wanted to be a historian, no, I didn't really. I didn't know I wanted to be historian until I applied to grad school. And even when I in grad school, I thought I'm not going to be a professor. I was going to get my history degree and then go back to Washington to work on policy and have a career there. This was exactly my plan.
I never thought I'd be doing what I'm doing. With the broader restructuring of the academic job market where there's so few jobs like mine that continue to exist, the fact that I'm sitting here as a full professor talking to just continually blows my mind. Before I went to grad school, I had thought that going becoming an academic was walling oneself off from public conversation, which is why I wanted to take my PhD and use it in a different way. Then I realized that I could actually craft a career for myself where I could do both. And that's why I've always consistently stayed doing things in public throughout my academic career.
Robin Lindley: What did you do in the Clinton campaign?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I started off in the mail room as all great careers start. Well, technically the correspondence office. As a note to all striving young people out there who are trying to get in on the entry level like I did, I started in the most unglamorous position ever. I was operating the autopen, which is this crazy machine that essentially forges the candidate’s signature. It has this mechanical arm that would write Bill Clinton in Sharpie on letters. You sit at it and operate it with a foot pedal.
The great thing about politics is it's a young person's game. If you're young and you're motivated and you hook up with the right mentors, then you can rise pretty fast. So, I started with the autopen and then I moved into field operations. I started at the headquarters in Little Rock and was doing get out the vote and worked for the campaign in Michigan for the last month before the election.
Then I went back to Little Rock to work on the transition team on economic policy as a staff assistant. I was a junior person doing proofreading and copy editing, and I was right there in the heart of everything. Clinton and Gore had an economic summit in December 1992 in Little Rock where they brought down all these leading business leaders and economists to talk about what to do about the economy, and I helped put the content for that together. I began to understand suddenly this landscape of power and business that I didn't know, and who was who and what was what.
Robin Lindley: And then you moved on to work at the White House.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I ended up working in the West Wing of the White House on economic policy. And then I moved to Health and Human Services as a policy aide.
You realize as a young person too that there's a tradeoff between high glamour and substance in these political appointments. The high glamour is definitely the White House, right? So you're kicking around the West Wing and you're going to Rose Garden ceremonies and you get the cool badge that you show when you walk in every day. It's pretty trippy.
But you're rarely doing anything substantive. You're answering the phone and running memos from one place to another. I really wanted to do something with more substance, so I went to the agencies. You're going to these giant concrete block buildings that are so unglamorous, right? But then you go and you learn about public policy and you learn how these programs work and you can learn the operations and what it really means to be in the executive branch and to execute the laws.
The glamour quotient goes down significantly, but the substance goes up. And I was fortunate that I was working for someone who was an extraordinary mentor and boss who's still a good friend of mine who was directing intergovernmental affairs at HHS. That’s one of the most important jobs at that agency because it deals with states and localities, and the programs run by HHS at the time were all state-federal cooperative programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and then AFDC which was turned into something else. You’re with the states and the states are the ones implementing the programs. So that was an incredible education in how policymaking works.
Then I went back to the White House and worked for Al Gore, but not on tech policy.
Robin Lindley: What were you doing for Vice President Gore?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: It was urban-focused economic policy. I worked on the Empowerment Zone program, which was this program to recapitalize urban neighborhoods that had been redlined. That was a centerpiece of Clinton's urban policy, and it was a program given to Gore for his portfolio. It was really interesting because it involved a whole different set of domestic programs and agencies.
There was all kinds of targeting of communities for Empowerment Zones. There was one in Harlem. Local coalitions would apply for and get these zone [designations], and then get access to special benefits such as tax breaks and incentives and programmatic support from a whole host of different agencies. It was supposed to both provide more social capital to the local organizations on the ground who were trying to rebuild the social infrastructure of these communities and also create incentives for private sector capital to invest in real estate development and infrastructure development and all sorts of other things.
Robin Lindley: That was a very important program, especially for inner cities.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: The verdict on how well that worked is still out. Historians are turning their attention to these programs and finding rather problematic and mixed results. Timothy Weaver’s Blazing the Neoliberal Trail is one example. We're still trying to figure out how to thread that needle of uneven capital investment and if capital investment in a poor area also means gentrification and displacement. So that again was another education.
I think cumulatively the experience gave me an appreciation of not only how politics works, but also how power works, and an appreciation for the essential humanity of people who are in very powerful positions, who are simply human beings trying to figure things out and sometimes they make good decisions and sometimes they make wrongheaded decisions. Generally speaking, presidents and political leaders are trying to do the best they can in terms of implementing agendas that they think are important. There have been exceptions, but [this experience] continues to shape the way that I write about history and the way I teach history.
I worked with Gore for a couple of years and I decided during that time that I didn't want to work in Washington or work in the hurly-burly of political life for my career. I loved writing and research and I wanted time to reflect on how these policies got to be the way they are and how the political landscape grew.
Robin Lindley: And then you went to graduate school in history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Yes. The thing about Washington DC is it's all reactive. By necessity, you're just ricocheting from one thing to another. The wonderful thing about the scholarly world is you have an opportunity to be reflective and proactive so you can sit back, you can read lots of books, you can think about how these pieces fit together. And then you can produce scholarship, right? You're not reacting to the news of the day. You’re thinking more in a more measured and long-term way. That's how I made the rather strange decision to transition from politics to grad school.
Robin Lindley: It seems that urban history was your primary focus in grad school. Your doctoral dissertation was award-winning and published as a book, Cities of Knowledge.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Urban history was my interest, and, at first, high tech was not at all on my radar screen. I'd come from working chiefly on programs that served poor people and were seeking to address poverty. I came to grad school assuming that I was going to continue my work on that. I went to work with the late Michael B. Katz who was an extraordinary scholar of poverty and social inequality.
When I embarked on the dissertation project, I knew I wanted to look at the American economy of the 1950s and suburbanization and poverty, as well as look at the world and economic geography of the US before the War on Poverty. Then, I started thinking about the role of federal economic policy. What was federal economic development public policy during this time? There were certainly things like the Area Redevelopment Act and efforts targeted toward poorer parts of the country that were designed to remedy their economic situation. But really the Big Kahuna was not an economic development policy at all. It was the military industrial complex. Then I knew what I wanted to do.
Robin Lindley: And universities were at the center of your research for your dissertation.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: The great lesson I learned early on was don't ever have too many preconceived ideas about what your dissertation is going to be about and what it's going to discover and what it's going to conclude. It's very tempting to say, I'm going to show that X happens.
I learned from that first project that the questions I was asking were not all the questions I needed to ask, and that the archives told me things and led me in places I hadn't expected. So, it became a book about universities as economic engines. It became a book about the transformation of American higher education. It became a book that was about the West Coast of the United States, a part of the country that I had not lived in, and I had not really spent much time in before I started writing about it. And it became about the origins of the technology industry, and I was not a historian of technology. I was a political historian. I was someone who was interested in policy.
Robin Lindley: How do you prefer to be seen as a historian now? You have a background in urban history, political history, presidential history, and now tech history.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I'm a historian of modern America. I'm interested in how the private and public sectors interact across time and space. I'm a political and economic historian and, in doing that, a historian of cities as sites of particular forms of economic production. I think they're all intertwined. I find my home in sub-disciplines.
The different playgrounds I play in are political history, urban history and technology history, although I should be quite clear that I'm not a historian of technology in the way of historians trained in history of science and technology who have a much deeper, more granular sense of the technological dynamics and the science itself. I'm a science, technology and society person, broadly defined.
I'm going to continue to resist being just one thing. For a while I felt I needed to choose a lane. I wrote a book about presidents and I followed up with a book about high tech and it seemed like they were disparate subjects, but really they're all tightly connected.
Robin Lindley: You certainly provide historical context and illuminate interconnections between politics, culture and economics in The Code.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I wrote The Code the way I did to show that when we interlace political history, social history, business history and technology history, new insights emerge about each of those domains because we understand the relationship of each with the others. To look particularly at the phenomenon of the modern American technology industry and Silicon Valley as a place and an industry without considering the broader political and cultural currents is too limiting.
To make the tech industry a sidebar in the world of 2019 seems absurd. It’s central. And the way it got to be so central was because it has been intertwined all along. It's never been separated. It's never been a sidebar. It's never been a bunch of wacky guys out in California doing their thing to be different. They weren't that different. They were different in distinctive ways, but their differences were constructed by and enabled by American culture, the broader currents in American culture. I think people who are students of cultural history, intellectual history, social history, political history, and urban history can all gain from this understanding of the history of the technology industry and of Silicon Valley in particular.
Robin Lindley: How did The Code evolve from your initial plan? Did you envision this comprehensive history of Silicon Valley or did you have something else in mind?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I went into this book because, ever since I wrote Cities of Knowledge, I was asked what's Silicon Valley's magic formula? How did it come to be? Only one part of that book was about Silicon Valley and that narrative ends around 1970. I set out to answer those two questions. Initially I was going to focus from the seventies through dot-com boom. And then I was thinking very much in terms of writing a political history of that era and the role of politics and policy and the growth of the tech industry. And as soon as I set out, I realized I was going to have to first go further back in time for the story make sense.
There were a lot of things that I had reflected on since the publication of Cities of Knowledge that had broadened and deepened my analysis of the origins of the Valley, and I wanted to bring that in. And you can't really start in 1970 without explaining how all these players got there. And, as I kept on going, I was encouraged to push it to our present day because one of the things that has happened, and I think that the book really makes clear, is how the scale and the scope and the speed of tech went into hyperspace after 2000. After the dot-com bust, you see the growth of new companies and new industries that are of a different order of magnitude. Yet the culture has some of the same persistent patterns.
What I realized when I was finishing the book and about to send off the manuscript in October 2018 was that this was an explicit explanation of how we got to now with big tech and how we now have these big five companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. And this book was not only for people inside the technology industry, and not only scholars, but it was for everyone who uses these technologies and these platforms, which are pretty inescapable.
It's very hard to navigate life in modern America without in some way using one of one of the products of the big five. Even if you choose to turn everything off, this stuff is touching you whether you know it or not. And it may not be obvious to the reader but, from the very first page when I start the narrative, when I started the 1940s, I wanted to make sure that there were continuing threads of ideas and processes that take us all the way to the present. Take the idea about connecting people and making the world more open and connected, a mantra repeatedly invoked by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. It has its origins deep in the past. I also wanted to show where a particularly important element of the tech story, the practice of high-tech venture capital, began and how the venture capital industry shaped what was possible in tech—including who got to be a technologist.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for explaining that process. A major theme in your book is how Silicon Valley grew because of a flood of government money and other public support such as tax breaks, favorable trade deals, etc. You offer a counterpoint to a popular perception that individual entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs alone created the flourishing tech industry.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Here is where you've had the presence of government and politics and policy all along. It’s never gone away, and not just with the Defense Department and NASA, but with other matters. The government nudged the tax code favorably in the tech industry’s direction.
There is a reason that this industry rose so high and for so long. It was treated politically as a golden child. Every city wanted a high-tech employer. And every lawmaker in Washington thought these companies, until recently, were the prime example of great American companies that they held up and celebrated.
And now, that mood has shifted dramatically. So, it's been so interesting. When I started this book, everyone was still pretty rah-rah on tech. It was still the golden years of the Obama era, when Obama was doing town halls at Facebook and all seemed so great and so hopeful. And now it's so dark.
For every scholar, if you're doing your job, you are a gentle critic. If you're deconstructing myths that people like to tell about themselves, you're speaking truth to power to some degree. Now I sometimes find myself saying, slow down a minute, and let's think about this. We're using these devices and there have been extraordinary technological advances that have made [some situations] better for humankind. At the same time, they also have brought these other very serious consequences. Let's take a more measured in historical view about it.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate that you planned to write for a general audience. Frankly, I was somewhat intimidated by this big book on tech. Thank you for making this history so lively and engaging.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Thanks. I went into this project knowing I wanted to write a trade book, not an academic book. I wanted it to be for general audience because I felt that there was a need for a comprehensive history of Silicon Valley that connected the deeper past to the present.
This was the book that I wished existed in 1999 when I first embarked on my dissertation research and moved out to the California and felt like the blind man and the elephant. I was getting little pieces of this history, but I couldn’t put it all together. I didn’t quite understand how all these things are connected. And after 20 years, I decided to write it myself, and I think there's an important need for it now.
I like to think I was writing a book about technology for people like me, meaning people who are not technologists and the people like the me of 1999: non-technologists interested in history and policy, interested in social history, interested in more broadly in the past. People who are technology users but don't really understand how it works.
To help readers, I wanted to write something that was neither cheerleading, aren't these guys great, nor isn’t it terrible--burn it all down. I hope that I got the tone right. It's a work of history and, as a historian, we aren't supposed to be writing Jeremiads. Our job is to do the best we can to build an archive and write from that. That's really what I did.
Robin Lindley: Speaking of building an archive, what was your research process? I imagine that you had to start from scratch just to find many materials. Did you find archives on this relatively recent history of technology?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I had to build my own archive. One of the challenges is that it's such recent history and another challenge is that companies that are busy building the future aren't really big on archives. They don't get that they should be saving stuff. And when you get to a big company that actually has resourced it out and has an archive, in many cases, they are closed to the public or they are extremely restricted in what they show people and what you can use. So there's limited utility there.
At the same time, I was fortunate in that people around tech funded and participated in a number of really robust oral history projects. There is one on venture capitalists at the University of California, Berkeley, that was funded by venture capitalists. It has a lot of interviews and oral histories with VCs performed by a trained oral historian, which I am not. I was so grateful for those for that archive. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, has an extensive and growing oral history collections. And the professional organization, the IEEE has a lot of oral histories that they have both recorded and transcribed. Many of these are available digitally. So those [archives] are incredible resources for anyone doing this.
I will say that a lot of the questions being asked in the oral histories were, rightfully so, about the technology itself and the development of the technology. I was really interested in understanding more about the social conditions. Hey, what was it like for a woman in tech? What was it like living in Palo Alto in 1965? Tell me about what you were doing after hours.
I wanted to know about the things that were not often as visible about business operations and organization, for which the venture capitalist oral history project is very useful for. Then you're talking about financing from banks. And that was very helpful.
Robin Lindley: And you interviewed dozens of people as part of your research.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: The interviews helped me better understand the network itself. Like who's friends with whom? I would interview someone, they would add, Oh, you should talk to my friend so-and-so. And I'm like, how do you guys know each other? Oh, we've known each other since 1972, and this is how you reach him or her. I was also interested in talking with people whose voices had not been represented in the archive.
In these conversations, I also asked about politics. There was almost nothing I could find about lobbying trips that electronics executives took to Washington and who they met with, so I talked with former politicians and to people involved in the lobbying with the executives. By and large, the CEO themselves would go and lobby and that that was part of their power. A group of high-tech CEOs went to DC in the early eighties and lobbied for changes in trade policy because they were getting slaughtered by Japan in the chip market.
They were doing personal, one-on-one lobbying. So very interesting. For that, I relied a lot on newspaper and magazine reporting. I think I've read every issue of Business Week between 1978 and 1982. I'm overstating it, but I did call up back issues from the library and they were not digitized, so I had a giant stack of volumes. It was actually quite useful to sort through pages of the magazines and see what's proximate to what, and then what’s on the front page.
Robin Lindley: You probably saw the faces of rising tech luminaries on many older magazine covers.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: That’s right. So you can see how it was growing and who was reporting on it and why and when.
Then I had tons of books from the period like journalism books about economic competition and technology. I was spending a lot of time on sites for Powell’s and Amazon just finding used books that you can buy for penny because that was the only place I could find them. There also were some obscure journalistic books about the trade war with Japan and stuff like that. I have boxes full of books actually that I’ll give to a foundation for other historians.
Robin Lindley: The Code is sure to become a major reference for other historians who research technology and economics.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I really wanted to put a trail of breadcrumbs in this book for future historians to pick up on because there's a lot more to be written.
Robin Lindley: Why did technology flourish in Silicon Valley? I understand from The Code and Cities of Knowledge that Stanford was a hub for this development, particularly because of its innovative engineering school. What else attracted people to the area initially in the post Second World War era?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: They come out for jobs in electronics. So first, you have this agricultural valley. Stanford is there and it's pretty good, but it wants to be really good. Fred Terman, who is a student of Vannevar Bush, comes back home to the Stanford faculty. He says, all this federal money will be flooding us and it’s best to spend this money on science research and we need to be ready for it. He completely reworks the curriculum and builds up physics and engineering and builds up these big labs. He gets these big federal contracts and is also at the same time courting industry.
And there was great weather, lots of open space, as well as ongoing aeronautics and military projects in the vicinity. And also, as I wrote about in Cities of Knowledge, the Defense Department was incentivizing these big defense contractors to decentralize and not have all their operations in one place so, if a Soviet bomb came, it wouldn't wipe out the whole joint. That’s why Lockheed moved its missile and space division to Sunnyvale.
There were these twin magnets in the Valley. You had Stanford, which was on the make and working really hard to bring in federal money and upgrade its place in the hierarchy of universities. And you had Lockheed, which was hiring thousands of electrical engineers to work on missile and space projects.
And from the get go, the nascent tech industry was already there before the war, specializing in oscillators and communications technologies like radar and microwave radio. So that's the building blocks of the modern computer revolution, with miniaturization of electronics, right? Once the transistor was invented—not in Silicon Valley but in Bell Labs in 1947—the capacity for electronics to get smaller and smaller and more powerful starts amping up.
Then you have communications technology. First there was time sharing and then there was the internet.
At this is time, Seattle was building airplanes and Boston was the hub of computing. There was no computing industry in the Valley for a long time. It was all East Coast. But once you had these twin magnets in this agricultural Valley, you start seeing East Coast electronics industries opening labs and satellite facilities in and around there to take advantage of all these smart young men coming out of Stanford or the offshoots of Lockheed.
By the end of the fifties, the Valley was not Silicon Valley yet, but it was known as a hub of small electronics. If you wanted to look for electrical engineers, you needed to go to California. There was this new symbiosis. The young men who came out there when it was still remote. It wasn’t that close to San Francisco. There was nothing going on there. Just two bars, and it was just boring. By and large, they were not people with connections or rich fathers or guys with Ivy league degrees. They weren’t going to get a job at aFortune500 company or work their way up in their father's law firm or bank, or they wouldn't go all the way out to California. The guys who come out were middle-class boys. Many of them were scholarship students and smart engineers who didn't have family connections and didn't have personal wealth even though many of them became very wealthy later.
And they didn't come into the game with money, but they were lucky. They were privileged. They were white, they were male, they were native born. They were middle or lower middle class but they were college educated. So that set them apart. And they were coming out when all of the winds were blowing in their direction.
If you were a smart MIT- or Stanford-trained engineer in the fifties, the world was your oyster. The Cold War was creating this huge demand for people just like them. They've got their pick of where to work. They worked in companies like Sylvania or Litton or other companies that no one remembers anymore.
Some went to Lockheed, which was the biggest employer in the Valley through the 1980s. This is not really recognized, partly because almost everything they did was top secret and no one could talk about it. They couldn’t write magazine cover stories about top secret missile research, so there wasn't buzz about it like there was on the commercial side.
So that's the beginning. That's how all these people started.
Robin Lindley: You vividly bring to life the daily activities of the workforce of mostly white male tech experts. You also mention some outstanding women in tech. What would you like readers to know about the role of women in Silicon Valley?
Margaret O’Mara: That there have been women there all along. The early Valley was a manufacturing region, filled with microchip fabrication plants and the rest, and that workforce was heavily feminized as well as being disproportionately Asian-American and Latina. Women who started their careers picking and canning fruit when the Valley was mostly an agricultural region then shifted over into electronics production as the industry grew. (The fiercely anti-union stance of the tech companies, however, meant that these jobs were not unionized, nor did workers often share in the benefits given to white-collar workers, like stock options).
The early days of computer programming involved a heavily female workforce, in good measure because the coding was seen as something rote, simple, unskilled. All the art—and all the money—was in the hardware. Even as a software business started to bloom in the 1970s and early 80s, however, there remained a good deal of technical women in the industry simply because the pool of trained people was smaller and a growing industry was desperate for programmers.
I should also add that another critically important group of women in the Valley were the wives of the male engineers and executives who pulled long hours in semiconductor firms and others. The work hard, play hard atmosphere of the industry was made possible by the fact that most of these men had wives at home who were keeping everything else running, caring for children and household, so that the husbands could throw themselves into their work. In short, women have always been part of the tech story. They just haven’t gotten much of the glory.
Robin Lindley: And Silicon Valley eventually eclipsed the traditional research hub in Boston. Was that because of the very different cultures?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: They had different cultures, but something I came to appreciate in the process of writing this book was the symbiotic relationship between Boston and the Bay Area. It’s similar in some ways to the symbiotic relationship now between Seattle and the Bay Area where these two [tech centers] now are. They are competitors, but they share people who ping back and forth and money that goes back and forth. And the same thing with Boston and the Bay Area. You see people going from MIT to Stanford and back to MIT.
Stanford and the Bay Area had the weather advantage, so people tended to move West and not go back East. But the capital was still East Coast centered until the eighties when you had tech venture capital, the money guys, out West. And there was a lot of venture capital. investing in high tech. These guys were all over. Some were investing in Chicago, on the East Coast, in the Midwest.
The decisive move West was not really until the late eighties with the death of the minicomputer industry and the swift decline of Digital and Wang, which were two big players in Boston. At the same time, the end of the Cold War shook the Boston economy more. It was more defense dependent than the Bay Area by then. Both areas were shaken by the end of the Cold War, but Boston didn't recover, and it didn't have a second act after minicomputers. It didn't have high tech venture capitalists or entrepreneurs that were then going on to found other companies. It didn't have that multigenerational dimension. It just had one big act, and that was it, although there's still plenty going on there now in biotech.
So Boston's still very much an important tech hub, but it's not what you have in the Valley. I think that's where the culture comes in. What develops in the Valley develops partially in isolation. I call it an “entrepreneurial Galapagos” because of the isolation. You have these strange species such as law firms that are specializing in high tech startups, like Wilson Sonsoni, that are figuring out how you structure a corporation that's founded by a couple of 22-year-olds who have no experience [as in the case of Apple]. You have high tech venture capitalists that are not just providing money, but they're providing very hands-on mentorship and executive direction to these companies. And in fact, they staff them up there. Basically, the VCs swoop in and bring the rest of the executive team and bring the adult supervision. They connect these new companies into the network, and that becomes this multigenerational thing.
And then you have the fact that the Valley has been specializing from day one in small electronics and communications devices. At the beginning of the commercial internet, it's perfectly poised to be the dominant place in that space even though the internet was not invented in the Valley, but was a Department of Defense creation. But the Valley researchers and technologists were at the forefront of miniaturization of digital technology and digital communication and software and hardware that enabled communication since the very beginning.
Robin Lindley: Speaking of the internet, we know that Al Gore didn’t invent the internet, but wasn’t he largely responsible for bringing this technology from the military and academia to consumers?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Al Gore was one of the few politicians in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s who really took the time to learn about and understand the industry and where it was going. Newt Gingrich was another. And Gore’s great contribution was pushing forward the commercializationof the Internet in the early 1990s, opening it up to all kinds of users and allowing it to become a place of buying and selling.
The Internet had been around for over 20 years by then, but it was a noncommercial space, restricted for most of its existence to academics and defense-sector government employees. As a senator, Gore sponsored legislation that gave the Internet backbone with the computing power it needed to scale up into a commercial network and supported the opening of the Internet to commercial enterprises. As Vice President, he led the push to write the rules of the road of the network, which resulted in the protocols and standards that govern its use today as well as resulted in Internet companies being quite loosely regulated. This allowed the dot-com boom and the social media and search platforms that followed, but, as we now see, had consequences that few could have anticipated in the early 1990s.
Robin Lindley: You write that Seattle and Silicon Valley are part of the same whole. How do you see that relationship?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I talk a lot in the book about Amazon and Microsoft and the evolution of those companies because they're very important now. One reason I do that is you see how, from the very beginning, both companies had very close ties to the Bay Area and that every element of the Seattle innovation ecosystem has connections here that are really important.
You have very early venture capital money from the Valley that capitalized Microsoft. You have the same for Amazon. And then it goes the other way. Jeff Bezos personally invested in Google at a very early stage. And you have this crisscrossing of people and capital and expertise that’s just a two-hour flight away.
My theory is that one reason the venture capital community hasn't gotten bigger in Seattle than one would expect is partially because it's easy to fly down and raise money. And now Seattle is getting some benefit from the overcrowding and saturation of the Bay Area because it’s harder and harder to live there. So people are coming up to Seattle. We'll see what happens.
Robin Lindley: That’s an illustration ofthe importance of free movement of people in America, as you stress. You also discuss how immigration shaped the tech industry, especially after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. How was immigration important to the development of Silicon Valley?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: Critically important. In the book, I highlight the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, the immigration reform that ended more than 40 years of racially restrictive quotas on foreign immigration and made possible whole new streams of immigration from Asia, Latin America, and the rest of the world. Many of them, particularly immigrants from East and South Asia, came to Silicon Valley.
Even before that reform, immigrants and refugees were critical parts of the tech story. Take Andy Grove, legendary CEO of Intel, who came here as a 20-year-old refugee from Hungary, speaking little English and undoubtedly doing little to impress the immigration officials processing his entry paperwork when he arrived in 1956. Or Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, the California-raised son of a Taiwanese single mom. Or Sergey Brin, son of refugees from Soviet Russia. The list goes on and on.
Robin Lindley: What are your thoughts on regulation or other measures to address big tech as concerns deepen about monopolization, disinformation, privacy, and other issues?
Professor Margaret O’Mara: It’s up to lawmakers to decide the best path going forward, but this history is critical to helping them make informed decisions about how to do so. And American history, more broadly, provides instructive insight into understanding this moment.
Over a century ago, Washington DC and the states were beset by similar debates about how to rein in the power of giant corporations and their billionaire CEOs. Then the industries in question were railroads, oil, and steel. Now its social media and search and e-commerce and cloud computing. But the basic questions of fairness, competition, and finding the right balance between capitalist enterprise and government guardrails remain.
Robin Lindley: I wanted to close with your perspective as a historian. You have said that history makes you an optimist. That may be an unusual posture for a historian in view of the innumerable accounts of disaster, war, and injustice that you study.
Professor Margaret O’Mara: I think history makes you a realist and it can make you an optimist. And a real, very important thing for historians who teach history and who care about history is that we need to interrogate and deconstruct narratives that don't actually align with historical truth. And we must discuss times when we didn’t live up to our ideals, and people who've been long been marginalized, and disempowered voices, and the privileging of some voices over others. That’s what we call being a realist. We must be real.
Particularly now, in thinking about American democracy and global democracy, you both need to have realism, but you also have to provide the people who are reading your history or listening to you in class help in understanding where they can have grounds for optimism as well as a realistic sense about the past.
Facts can be empowering. Knowledge is power. We can use that power to think about and give tangible examples of how people spoke truth to power. There are examples of collective mobilization or individual actions that have had significant societal consequences.
There are examples in American history of dark, violent, horrible, horrible moments in our past, and so many times in which America did not live up to the ideals it purports to stand for. And yet these are ideals that were laid out in the first place that we are asked to aspire to. There are examples of particular people who have been excluded by the way that these ideals have been executed in practice, and they fought against that exclusion and for having a voice and their rights.
I go back to the fact that the descendant of slaves was our last First Lady. And that tells us there's some progress, right? And here I am, a senior tenured female history professor at the University of Washington. You go back to the era of my great grandmother and I would have not even have been given a job. And, if I had been given a job, I certainly wouldn't have been given tenure or job security or the authority to speak in the way I now can with this platform. And I feel that's an incredible privilege I have.
So what can I do to use that in the way that lifts up as many other people and inspires people to change the world that they see and make it a truly better place. I have spent a lot of time writing about people who yammered about making the world a better place. I think they believed that. There’s a desire that lies within the human heart to make the world a better place. I ask how can society be arranged in a way that is as fair and as just as possible to advance that desire and to allow that human potential to be realized.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring remarks Professor O’Mara and congratulations on your groundbreaking new book on Silicon Valley, The Code.
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