Silicon Valley

views updated


SILICON VALLEY, located around Santa Clara and San Jose, California, is the home of many key U.S. corporations that specialize in advanced electronic and information technologies. First called "Silicon Valley" in 1971 by a local newsletter writer, Donald C. Hoefler, the "Valley" became the center of newly developing technologies that many believed would revolutionize computers, telecommunications, manufacturing procedures, warfare, and even U.S. society itself. The name came to symbolize a type of high-risk business characterized by rapid success or failure, extensive job mobility, and informal behavior, traits thought by some to be the wave of the future. The location of such high-tech research, development, and manufacturing in a formerly agricultural area—once known as the "prune capital of America"—grew mainly from its proximity to Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto. Stanford, a research-oriented institution with active departments in engineering and electronics, decided in 1951 to establish a "research park," a place where companies could build facilities and conduct research in cooperation with the university, the first such enterprise in the country.

If there was a single founder of Silicon Valley it was William Shockley, an English-born physicist who worked on early concepts of the transistor at Bell Laboratories before World War II and who went on to become the director of Bell's Transistor Physics Research Group. A restless person whose inquisitive mind and entrepreneurial aspirations did not find satisfaction in the larger corporation, he became a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology in 1954. The following year he founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories just south of Palo Alto in the north end of Silicon Valley. Shockley's business acumen did not equal his skills in science and engineering, however, and in 1957 eight of his engineers defected to create Fairchild Semiconductor, supported by Fairchild Camera and Instrument.

Their departure established a pattern of job mobility that came to characterize careers in Silicon Valley in particular and in the electronics companies in general, with employees shunning ties of corporate loyalty in favor of personal fulfillment and financial reward. Reinforcingthis pattern, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andrew Grove left Fairchild Semiconductor in 1968 to establish Intel. Another Fairchild employee, W. J. Sanders III, founded Advanced Micro Devices soon thereafter. In the early 1970s one survey found forty-one companies in Silicon Valley headed by former Fairchild employees. This pattern continued into the 1980s with such companies as National Semiconductor, Atari, Apple Computer, LSI Logic, and Cypress Semiconductor having all or part of their origins in Silicon Valley.

To many observers the California location was central to the success and, later, the problems of Silicon Valley. The popular image of California, with its promise of individual and professional renewal, played a part, as did the cultural climate of the 1960s, which criticized large organizations for suppressing personal expression. The moderate climate of Silicon Valley, combined with a pool of educated talent from California universities and a largely nonunion workforce, attracted investors and corporations alike. Publicity about Silicon Valley in the 1970s generated discussion about new opportunities for U.S. industry, especially in electronics. In this respect the Valley represented a significant demographic change in American society: a shift in political and economic power from the older industrialized Northeast and Midwest to the Pacific Coast. The rise of Silicon Valley occurred at a time when major changes in financial markets and the availability of capital were affecting many established electronics companies.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, much of the valley relied on military contracts, but this dependence declined as commercial and then personal markets for computers emerged. Investors hoping for a very high rate of return increasingly were willing to risk supporting the new electronics companies even though as many as 25 percent of them failed within a few years. Demand for capital increased as the size of electronic components, such as memory chips, decreased. Hand in hand with smaller components developed the need for more sophisticated and costly technologies in manufacturing. By the late 1980s companies estimated that they needed as much as $1 billion to establish a manufacturing facility for the latest generation of semiconductors. Observers of investment practices and corporate strategies began to worry that this reliance on venture capital had created a pattern in U.S. business that stressed short-term profits rather than longer-term concerns about product development and competition from foreign corporations. Silicon Valley's success and the boost it gave to California's image and economy led such states as Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Colorado, New York, and Minnesota to invite or promote advanced electronic firms. In the 1990s, however, companies in Silicon Valley remained the major indicator of the health of the industry.

Products such as memory and logic chips, micro-processors, and custom-made circuits are expensive to manufacture, subject to price-cutting in the market, and have a short product life (sometimes two years or less) before the next generation appears. Their sale depends on the health of important segments of U.S. industry, including computers, telecommunications systems, automobiles, and military contractors. Silicon Valley and its counterparts elsewhere in the United States thus are subject to cycles of boom and bust. The latter occurred in 1984–1986, when many of the valley's companies found themselves with surplus products after a drop in the U.S. personal computer market. Companies had to lay off workers and some went out of business.

Foreign competition, especially from Japan, caused perhaps the greatest problems for Silicon Valley. Business and political leaders debated whether or not trade policy needed to defend the interests of U.S. electronics firms more aggressively and whether U.S. companies should receive government funding to make them more competitive in the international market. Silicon Valley had begun to worry about Japanese competition by the late 1970s. In 1981, U.S. companies controlled 51.4 percent of the world's semiconductor market; Japan's share was 35.5 percent. Within seven years the figures had virtually reversed themselves, with Japan at 51 percent and the United States 36.5 percent. U.S. companies charged their Japanese counterparts with dumping semiconductors onto the U.S. market at low prices to undercut U.S. manufacturers while Japan kept much of its home market closed. The Semiconductor Industry Association, which represented many companies in Silicon Valley, urged bilateral agreements to open Japan's market. The first of these was signed in 1986, and a second followed in 1992. By the early 1990s it appeared that U.S. industry had started to recover some of the ground lost to Japan. A boom cycle began in the mid-1990s with the emergence of the Internet and electronic commerce, sending technology stocks skyward and leading to the rapid rise of new businesses in the software and electronics industries.

Several factors reduced the lure of Silicon Valley as the center of the electronics and computer industry, among them new technologies, the ascent of successful electronic-component manufacturing elsewhere in the United States, and foreign competition. People learned that the manufacturing of electronic components was not as environ-mentally clean or safe as some thought, and the growth of the Valley led to traffic congestion and air pollution. Silicon Valley remained a center of research, development, and manufacturing in the electronics industry, however, and the rise of the Internet-based "dot.coms" of the mid-and late 1990s reenergized the area's symbolic role as a frontier of industrial and social organization and sent property values soaring. When technology stocks began to implode in early 2001, however, massive layoffs swept through Silicon Valley, again casting a shadow over the the area's immediate future and underlining the region's dependence on a sector of the economy that seems to be particularly susceptible to boom-and-bust cycles.


Findlay, John M. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Forester, Tom. High-Tech Society: The Story of the Information Technology Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987.

Saxby, Stephen. The Age of Information: The Past Development and Future Significance of Computing and Communications. New York: New York University Press, 1990.

Teitelman, Robert. Profits of Science: The American Marriage of Business and Technology. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Kenneth B.Moss/c. w.

See alsoComputers and Computer Industry ; Demography and Demographic Trends ; Electricity and Electronics ; Japan, Relations with .

Silicon Valley

views updated

Silicon Valley


Silicon Valley, California, USA, is widely hailed as the driving force behind the new high-tech economy. This region has a long history of economic and social struggle that predates and sets the stage for the contemporary terrain of sleek high-technology firms with billionaire chief executive officers (CEOs). Santa Clara Valley (as the region is also known) has been the site of continuous struggles between Native Americans and newcomers, wealthy business owners and low-income workers, and Anglos and people of color and immigrants. This includes the time of the Spanish conquest (beginning in 1769), the gold-rush period (during the mid-1800s), the agricultural period (during the late 1800s through the mid-1900s [Zavella 1987]), and the present-day electronics or high-technology era. During each of these periods, the Santa Clara Valley has been the site of battles over economic and political power that resulted in the relegation of indigenous peoples, immigrants, and people of color to the lowest positions in the social hierarchy. Each period of struggle also saw enormous harm visited upon the natural environment as corporations extracted raw materials for production and sale in global consumer markets (Park and Pellow 2002).

International Business Machines (IBM) built its first West-Coast plant, its Pacific headquarters, in San Jose, California, in 1943. Soon companies such as FMC, Lockheed, General Electric, Sylvania, Fairchild, Memorex, National Semiconductor, and dozens of others located to the area and built what eventually became known as Silicon Valley, producing industrial and consumer electronics that constituted the high-tech revolution.

While a number of industrialists became extraordinarily wealthy as a result of the electronics boom, social inequality was a continuous hallmark of economic development in the region. By 1995, although there was great racial diversity in Santa Clara County (as the total Latino population constituted 23 percent of the countys residents, Asian Pacific Islanders were 20 percent, and the white population less than 53 percent), Silicon Valley was experiencing ever-increasing wage inequality by race, class, and gender at rates much greater than in the United States as a whole. In 1970 women and people of color constituted an exceedingly small fraction of professional and managerial positions in the valley while these same groups were concentrated in the lower-paid, higher-risk occupations of craft worker, operative, and laborer. As of the early twenty-first century, these patterns remained virtually unchanged, except for class bifurcation among Asian populations as many skilled Chinese and South Asian immigrants moved into higher-paid positions while the Vietnamese population remained concentrated in the lowest-paid positions. Thus, race, class, and gender each operated in ways that generally disadvantaged people of color and women in Silicon Valley.

Despite these social inequalities, Silicon Valley promoters were always able to boast about the environmentally safe image of the high-technology industry and how this sector was distinct from other manufacturing industries because it was pollution free. The pollution-free image was shattered in December 1981 when it was discovered that the well that supplied drinking water to homes in south San Jose was contaminated with thousands of gallons of the deadly chemical trichloroethane (TCA), a solvent used to remove grease from microchips and printed circuit boards after they are manufactured. The toxic waste materials had been leaking from an underground storage tank for at least a year and a half. The responsible party was the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, a major firm in the valley.

Most persons working to produce computers and semiconductor chips inside Silicon Valleys electronics firms are women, immigrants, and people of color. Much of the ethnic and gender segregation in the industry is the result of conscious and selective recruiting on the part of managers (Hossfeld 1990). Compounding the exposure of these workers to the pollution in their neighborhoods is the fact that they hold jobs that are more toxic than those found in any other basic industry. Up to 1,000 different chemicals and metals are used in the various processes required to produce semiconductor chips around the world. Toxic spills that have enraged communities located near chip plants have also impacted the health of workers inside the plants.

Outsourcing of jobs overseas has been a major concern among Silicon Valley workers since the 1980s. Despite earlier no lay-off pledge declarations by high-technology industry leaders, this sector is not fundamentally different from any other with regard to the impact of globalization. The electronics industry is a global industry with investors, owners, factories, workers, and consumer markets the world over. Firms have worked to continuously minimize costs and maximize profits, and this often means importing workers through the H1B visa program (the program that allows foreign workers to come to the United States to work for one company for a set period of time before they return home, which some critics have labeled a modern form of indentured servitude) or moving factories overseas to find cheap labor in other countries. Electronics firms have moved from the United States to Mexico and then to China, for example, in an effort to hold down costs and boost earnings. Predictably, these practices are accompanied by low-wage, hazardous working conditions and often result in serious occupational health hazards and environmental harm. If Silicon Valley (and those communities around the globe that host a high density of electronics firms) is to have a hopeful future, it will have to be transformed and characterized by social equity and ecologically sustainable economic practices.

SEE ALSO Technological Progress, Economic Growth; Technology


Hossfeld, Karen. 1990. Their Logic Against Them: Contradictions in Sex, Race, and Class in Silicon Valley. In Women Workers and Global Restructuring, ed. Kathryn Ward. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

Pellow, David N., and Lisa Sun-Hee Park. 2002. The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy. New York: New York University Press.

Zavella, Patricia. 1987. Womens Work and Chicano Families: Cannery Workers of the Santa Clara Valley. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

David N. Pellow

Lisa Sun-Hee Park

Silicon Valley

views updated

Silicon Valley a name given to an area between San Jose and Palo Alto in Santa Clara County, California, USA, noted for its computing and electronics industries.

Silicon Valley

views updated

Silicon Valley A name used for a part of west California, south of San Francisco, that contains a large number of computer and software companies.

About this article

Silicon Valley

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic