1969 was a big deal: the moon landing, Woodstock, and riots in San Francisco all took place that year. But it was the developments just a few miles away from those riots that would really change the world forever.

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It might seem unbelievable, but 50 years ago Silicon Valley was largely filled with orchards, not high tech companies. The real high tech work was going on in the east — at places like MIT and Harvard. So what was the spark that transformed Silicon Valley into what it is today?

Innovative Pioneers

You might expect Silicon Valley’s transformation to have been headed by a group of radical thinkers throwing corporate hierarchy to the wind — and you would be right. But the fact that the U.S. government was an early client? Well, that might be more surprising. 

“In the earliest days of Silicon Valley, when people started building things like microchips … there were only a few places in the world that were willing to pay the kind of premium for a microchip simply because it was light,” explains Leslie Berlin, a historian at Stanford University. “And one of the only places — in fact the place that bought 100 percent of the original microchips was the Department of Defense.”

Regis McKenna, a marketing expert who came to Silicon Valley 50 years ago, remembers when great minds from Harvard and MIT began moving west. He describes a group of young people taking a risk together — often because industries in their hometowns were waning. McKenna moved to Silicon Valley because the steel industry in in his hometown of Pittsburgh was in trouble. 

“It was a new era, there was new technology, there were new kinds of businesses, and new opportunities to create your own vision of the future,” McKenna says. “The lure wasn’t any different than the traditional American pioneer. Essentially shake off the hierarchical, traditional, Eastern business mentalities and strike out on their own.”

The Father of the Valley

Among those early pioneers was Robert Noyce, the co-founder of Intel. Noyce, the inventor of the microchip, instilled Silicon Valley with its signature non-corporate personality. Noyce was a brilliant and charismatic man who emphasized teamwork over individual accomplishment.

He was also a believer in meritocracy — if your ideas weren’t getting their due in a given corporation, he argued, you should take them out on your own. See any resemblance to the Googles, Apples, or Facebooks of today?

“Noyce was a big believer that what mattered was what you knew, not where your name happened to appear in an organization chart,” Berlin says. “This sort of notion that knowledge is prized over anything…led to several things that we now associate with Silicon Valley.”

Noyce’s meritocratic vision lives on in the Silicon Valley workspaces that have no walled-off offices or executive parking spaces, and that give employees a larger share in the company’s stock.

Silicon Valley’s Future

But while the ethics of Silicon Valley companies may remain the same, McKenna thinks that the job description for CEOs like Google’s Larry Page and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer has become more challenging.

“I think their job is much more complex and difficult,” he says. “These software companies, I think are really struggling to find out what true north is and where do they move next. They’re moving back into hardware — is Google ad agency? Is it a search engine? Is it a telephone manufacturer? I don’t think we’re going to see them become more simplified in the near future.” 

While neither Berlin nor McKenna can guess who will be at the top of the tech game in 10 years, they can guess where those leaders will be working. Despite a rising cost of living and more difficult visa statutes, both believe that Silicon Valley will remain a hub of innovation as long as smart people with good ideas keep moving west.

“As Silicon Valley has basically become an entrepreneurship machine — it’s a whole environment set up to support entrepreneurs — the fact that it’s very costly still hasn’t overridden anything else,” says Berlin. “We’ve been able to get the best and the brightest from all over the world to come here.”

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