Stanford historian Leslie Berlin discusses her new book on the forgotten figures of tech history

By Emily Olson

Bunch of troublemakers: early Silicon Valley engineers responding to a reporter’s question—“What do you think of Texas Instruments?” (Images Courtesy of the Computer History Museum)

It’s possible to explain the history of Silicon Valley using only two types of characters — and no, we’re not talking binary.

There’s the “innovators … the typical heroes in our story of technological process,” as Atlantic Senior Editor Derek Thompson put it. “Their names and logos are the ones in our homes and in our pockets.”

Leslie Berlin is currently the Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives, at Stanford University. (Photo by Anne Barry)

And then there’s simply everyone else. There’s the unknown inventors and scientists, the behind-the-scenes manufacturers and marketers, the anonymous builders and doers. Perhaps most importantly, there’s the folks who came before. The ones who laid the foundation for the famous, Steve Jobs-esque figures we revere today.

Enter Stanford historian Leslie Berlin. Her new book, “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age,” tells the story of seven forgotten but impactful characters, building an authoritative history of the peninsula’s most formative years. Between 1969 and 1984, Silicon Valley launched the consumer electronics industry, which sits at the heart of America’s economic engine today.

Berlin will talk about her cast of troublemakers at Mountain View’s Computer History Museum on December 13. We caught up with her last week, discussing everything from the ingredients for innovation to falling in love with your characters.

Leslie Berlin’s current book is published by Simon & Schuster.

What got you interested in this specific era?

My first book was about the generation previous to this one. And when I was trying to figure out what to do for my second book, I decided to approach things very analytically. I sat down and made a timeline of Silicon Valley history. I got to this moment at the end of the 60’s, beginning of the 70’s, where all the dots I’d been putting down made this huge cluster. It was kind of like watching the Big Bang.

Between ’68 and ’76 — just eight years — you had Apple, Intel, Genentech, Atari, Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia Capital, the first Arpanet transmission, the rise of the celebrity entrepreneur, the first Silicon Valley lobbying organizations…. I just thought, what the heck is going on?

What was Silicon Valley like before that moment?

That’s what makes this super interesting. Silicon Valley, which wasn’t even named yet, is just one industry: it’s chips. And it’s basically gearhead engineers selling to other gearhead engineers.

Then by the end of [1976], you have biotech, video games, personal computing, modern venture capital, advanced semiconductor logic…it’s all happening during this little bitty timeframe. This is the period that brought us to where we are today.

What do you see as the key factors that made this period so ripe for invention and growth?

There’s a couple of things, and these have been the secret to Silicon Valley all along.

First, it’s the technology itself. You had levels of large-scale integration and sophistication that just hadn’t existed before. That meant that things could be logarithmically faster, cheaper and smaller.

Take this incredibly powerful technology and put it in a place that is in the throes of counter-culture movements and Vietnam protests. It’s technology in the hands of people who are no longer trusting the big institutions around them. They’re trying to take what had been locked up in the Pentagon or sophisticated labs and give it to everyone else.

There’s some legislation changes and such that happened, too, which made more money available for venture capital firms. And then put that on top of an ecosystem that had been custom-built for entrepreneurship by the previous generation, the chip pioneers.

Then you have all the ingredients you need to make that big bang happen; you have this perfect combination of culture, technology and money.

A Silicon Valley original: Atari’s Pong prototype, as engineered by Al Alcorn. (Images Courtesy of the Computer History Museum)

Do you see now as a particularly relevant time to be looking back and considering that history? Do you see similarities with that time period in any way?

In most ways, now is completely different.

For a long time, even before Silicon Valley was named, people thought that the tech industry was going to die. Everything from foreign competition to oil spills to y2k to the dotcom bust — different things were going to kill Silicon Valley.

But now…I’ve never seen a group of people who’ve looked at Silicon Valley and wondered if it’d be better if it did die. It’s under a lot of scrutiny — a lot of important, deserved scrutiny — that’s coming from all sides. The Right thinks that Silicon Valley leans too far left and the Left thinks that Silicon Valley is too powerful and monopolistic. No one quite understands what’s happening with the data…

There’s a lot of quite justifiable anxiety that’s been amplified by just how dependent on these technologies we’ve become. The questions that people are asking are different from the past.

What’s been consistent is the spirit of innovation. There’s still a genuine idealism that drives the industry. I mean, of course people want to make money, but there’s a lot of people who are trying to make the world better, too.

The other thing that’s been consistent is the role of immigrants in building the valley. Back in the beginning, people were coming from other parts of the U.S. Now they’re coming from all over the world. But it’s the same idea of being this magnet that attracts this inflow of the best and brightest. They serve as a constant refresh in the system — that’s so important.

Big Macs: early Apple-era computers— the Apple Lisa 2 and the Apple Macintosh. (Image Courtesy of the Computer History Museum)

Your book does a great job of illustrating the relevant context with anecdotes and delightfully specific details. How long did it take you to research and write it?

I started working on it six years ago. It’s funny, I was at an event at Xerox PARC recently and someone came up to me and said, “I see I’m in your acknowledgements…Did I talk to you?” It’d been so long!

It was a very complicated book to write. It’s seven people’s stories, but I didn’t want to write it in the way you normally see these books, which is a profile of person one, a profile of person two, etc. etc. I thought the interesting thing came in the overlap.

I know you did quite a few interviews for the book. I’m curious how much is a first-hand account from the characters themselves?

I talked to everyone multiple times, except Bob Swanson, who’d already passed away.

Generally, you can trust your sources, as long as you interrogate them with a little bit of skepticism. But I had to make sure the skeleton was based on what historians call primary source documents — materials that are written at the time, like lab reports. No one was writing those thinking, “I’m going to fudge these so I get more credit.”

That was the skeleton, and then the flesh are the stories. I’ve been really self-taught on the tech, and I’ve had the good fortune to be comfortable asking stupid questions and have smart people answer them. I fact-checked everything I could and put the book through technical reviews in the different industries.

There’s so many early innovators you probably could have chosen. What was your thinking behind these seven specifically?

I had three criteria:

First, I wanted people who were less known. I tell a story in the introduction of being at a party where the COO of a company with a superstar CEO sang a song; the lyrics went, “I did all the work, and he got all the credit.” The people in the spotlight are there because of what they did, but also because of what everyone outside of the spotlight did.

Second, I wanted them to be important in their impact or tell us something important about the valley.

And I wanted them to be really interesting. I mostly read fiction for fun, and I wanted good narrative.

Going off of that first point, it feels sometimes like the American public is more enamored with mega-rich entrepreneurs and the Steve Jobs types than the true scientists. Do you see yourself as trying to sway our perception of Silicon Valley in the grander sense?

Maybe it wasn’t a deliberate effort, but I think it is important to do. If everyone is aiming to be the person in charge, it’s not going to work.

I think of the TED talk about the first follower [see below]. It’s really important to think about everyone who takes part in the innovation process.

I’ve never worked in tech or done anything remarkably innovative, but I found myself relating to your characters’ workplace struggles and cheering them on. I’m curious if there’s one that resonated with you personally? Did you have a favorite?

I didn’t have a favorite. I definitely had stories that surprised me.

It wasn’t until I started really looking into Bob Taylor’s life that I realized the deep connection between the arpanet and the personal computer. And also that he was a master’s-level psychologist leading all these Ph.D.’s.That was really interesting to me.

I found Sandy Kurtzig’s story super interesting, too. [Kurtzig was the first woman to take a technology company, ASK, public.] Not because she was a woman, per se, but because she was an outsider in so many ways. She figured out how to do this all on her own.

What I loved about Fawn Alvarez’s story is how perfectly it tracked the story of Silicon Valley. She went from working in orchards to manufacturing to work much more similar to what we do today. [Alvarez ended her career in the executive suite of ROLM.]

Time and time again, I found myself wanting to learn more about each one.

I mean, Al Alcorn’s story was so interesting because he went from being a guy who had to be told what to think about to a guy who did it all by himself. [Alcorn was the engineer behind Atari’s Pong.]

Oh, and Niels Reimers! Talk about someone who no one knows about. His work is so important! [He uncaged university innovations for industry development as an administrator at Stanford.]

I guess you’d have to fall in love with all of them if you’re going to stick with them for six years.

Oh it’s so true. One book that I thought about doing before this one was going to be a biography of J. Paul Getty. But the guy…oh my gosh… the guy himself was not an easy man to spend time with, even in the short time I was investigating. I thought there was no way I could do it long-term.

When I wrote about Bob Noyce, I literally dreamed about him. Not in a romantic way, but he was in my dream and said my name in his gravelly voice.

You need to make sure they are people you’re going to be happy to spend time with. Especially if you’re making an argument about them being people who should be known better. Not to give myself too much credit. I’m just saying if you’re taking the time and effort to try to surface people, you want to make sure that they’re deserving.

There’s a question that I always love to ask authors. If you could take one thing about your book and broadcast it to the whole world, what would that be?

I would say that there are two secrets to Silicon Valley success that are really underappreciated. One is mentorship, what Steve Jobs described in a 2005 commencement address as “passing the baton.” The other is immigrants.

That’s what I’d want everyone to know content-wise. But on the commercial side, I’d broadcast that it looks long, but it reads fast and the last 100 pages are all notes you can skip [laughs].

Leslie Berlin’s new book is Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age

Click here for her upcoming event at the Computer History Museum, on Wednesday December 13, in conversation with the Museum’s Marguerite Gong Hancock.

Follow her on twitter @LeslieBerlinSV

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