SLAC Colloquium Series

SLAC Colloquium Series


Colloquium Detail

When Silicon Valley was "Arc Alley"

Date: 4/6/2009

Thomas Lee
Stanford University Department of Electrical Engineering

Most histories of Silicon Valley begin with Shockley, Fairchild and the transistor. Occasionally, they'll go as far back as Hewlett and Packard. Few seem to be aware of the important prehistory that made all those developments possible. The first high-tech giant in the area was Federal Telegraph and Telephone, founded in 1909 by recent Stanford graduate Cyril Elwell as the Poulsen Wireless Telephone & Telegraph Company. Funding was provided by Stanford's first president, David Starr Jordan, along with William Crocker and others. By the end of the first World War, Federal was building 500kW continuous-wave transmitters based on negative-resistance arc oscillators, having beaten well-established rival General Electric for the Navy contract. The first Stanford PhD in electrical engineering was awarded to Leonard Fuller for the breakthroughs that permitted Federal to construct such high-power transmitters.

Federal nurtured intellectual seeds that would flower here and elsewhere. Lee de Forest carried out his most important work on the triode vacuum tube while at Federal. Future "father of Silicon Valley" Fred Terman spent a summer internship there. Cecil Green -- later to found Texas Instruments -- worked for Charles Litton (himself later to found an eponymous company) there, as well.

In a pattern that would become familiar, Federal spawned numerous spinoffs, including Magnavox and Jensen, before ultimately disappearing into history. A surplus 80-ton magnet donated by Federal to U.C. Berkeley arguably enabled the finest tribute: The gift's recipient, Ernest Lawrence, built his cyclotron around that magnet, and ultimately won the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for that achievement.

Lee's talk will focus on the Federal-dominated pre-silicon years of Silicon Valley, and will demonstrate that the patterns of today's high-tech industry are simply minor elaborations of historical motifs that were established a century ago.

Thomas Lee is an IEEE Distinguished Lecturer of both the Solid-State Circuits and Microwave Societies. He holds 35 U.S. patents and authored The Design of CMOS Radio-Frequency Integrated Circuits (now in its second edition), and Planar Microwave Engineering, both with Cambridge University Press. He is a co-author of four additional books on RF circuit design, and also cofounded Matrix Semiconductor.

Last update: October 03, 2013