In search of the spirit of invention in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley—we know it’s there, but its borders elude us. The region is synonymous with innovation, collaboration, and the cutting edge. It’s known for spectacular successes and equally spectacular failures. So, what does define Silicon Valley? And what does it take to make a hot spot of invention? 

Silicon Valley East. Flickr photo by Andrei Z.

Such questions are central to the Lemelson Center’s ongoing research into places of invention, communities where a critical mass of creative, dedicated people, networks, institutions, and resources converge and innovation flourishes. The Center explores such places through the Hot Spots of Invention showcase, monthly podcasts, and more.

TeslaMotors_web Inside the Tesla Motors assembly warehouse in Menlo Park, CA, March 2010. Photo by Amanda Murray.

The power of place was central to the Spirit of Silicon Valley bus tour organized and hosted by the Lemelson Center for this year’s National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) conference in San Francisco. My colleague Jeff Brodie and I traveled with NCIIA conference attendees to some of Silicon Valley’s places of invention. Our destinations: the iconic Hewlett-Packard garage, where electronics pioneers William Hewlett and David Packard designed and built audio oscillators long before they built printers; SRI International, known for pioneering innovations in communications, computing, and more; and the assembly and testing facility of Tesla Motors, a leader in developing high-performance electric cars. (I have my eye on the orange one.)

Like a cross-section of NCIIA’s own membership, our 15-person tour groups included students, engineers, entrepreneurs, and university faculty with interests in innovation. HP’s Corporate Archivist, Anna Mancini, took us inside both the story of a legendary partnership, and the modest Palo Alto home and garage where the company took root. At SRI International, we were treated to demos of a medical automation robot and of the game-changing new smart-phone application-Siri, “Your Virtual Personal Assistant”-that is truly an extension of SRI’s legacy of innovation. In the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart and his team at SRI, then the Stanford Research Institute, developed revolutionary ideas and methods for using computers to augment human intelligence. (Hypertext? That’s all Engelbart.)

HPGarage_web HP Corporate Archivist Anna Mancini inside the restored Hewlett-Packard Garage at 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto, CA, March 2010. Photo by Amanda Murray.

What about the “spirit” that ties all these places together? Our guest tour guide, Matteo Bittanti, a curator from the Tech Museum of Innovation, suggested that Silicon Valley is a state of mind, that the Valley’s geography matters less than the collaborative attitude of its entrepreneurs. (Although collaboration is a key feature of Silicon Valley as we know it today, the case was not so when orchards outnumbered electronics firms. The Santa Clara Valley was mostly agricultural, home to just a handful of radio electronics companies, as late as the 1940s.)

Leslie Berlin, our other guide and Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford, pointed to the role of serendipity. For instance, William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, moved his operations to California simply to be closer to his mother in Palo Alto. Shockley’s company, but especially its spin-offs, made the region a hot spot for electronics innovation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Several of our bus tour participants had never been to California, let alone the towns that anchor Silicon Valley. We didn’t set out to reach a consensus about the spirit of this place, or to see of all its landmark institutions. Rather, we aimed to get people thinking and talking about the seen and unseen factors, through history and today, that make Silicon Valley a region that is often imitated but rarely duplicated.

What do you think it takes to make a hot spot of invention? Add your ideas in the comments section below.

Amanda Murray is a project assistant for the National Museum of American History’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.