The Mad Men of Silicon Valley

A new PBS documentary shows us how the future was invented, one chip at a time

Topics: Silicon Valley, PBS, American Experience, Robert Noyce, Computers, computer chips, Intel, Fairchild Semiconductor, computing history, Venture Capital, ,

The Mad Men of Silicon Valley

“We’re not that big on history,” says veteran technology journalist Michael Malone near the close of “Silicon Valley,” a documentary premiering tonight on PBS as part of the “American Experience” series. “We don’t look back very much.”

It’s an odd thing to hear. If you have even a passing interest in the history of computing, you’ve likely run across some portion of the tale told in “Silicon Valley.” How the “Traitorous Eight,” a group of brilliant scientists frustrated by the erratic behavior of their boss, Nobel prize–winning physicist William Shockley, defected to start their own company and launch the silicon chip revolution is the foundation stone of Valley myth-making. Every book — and there have been many — that strives to recount the story of how the computer chip changed the world, or how Silicon Valley’s venture capital-funded start-up culture, with all its love of risk and innovation, broke the old way of doing business in America returns, over and over again, to the brave young physicists and chemists who abandoned their corporate cocoon in 1957 and kicked off the future.

That’s not to say it’s a bad story, or somehow not worth telling again. After all, it’s perfectly true, as one commentator declares in the documentary, that the “most important invention of the last 100 years is the microprocessor … the defining invention of the modern era.” Sitting at my desk right now, I can see, within two feet of me, a laptop, two phones, a bike computer, a digital voice recorder, a modem and a printer all containing chips that trace their silicon DNA back to the Traitorous Eight and their legendary company, Fairchild Semiconductor. The world, as the black-and-white footage and stills shown in “Silicon Valley” emphasize in almost every scene, is very different now. How we got from there to here is an amazing story.

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And in Robert Noyce, the young physicist who led his band of engineers, first to found Fairchild and then, in a second spinoff, to found Intel, still the mightiest chipmaker in the world, the filmmakers discovered an intriguing vehicle to carry their story. Though live footage of Noyce is rare, it’s not hard to see from his photographs, and hear from the reminiscences of his colleagues, that Noyce was Silicon Valley’s version of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper. Handsome, charming, a terrific salesman, but also a creative genius in the world of physics, a man responsible for some of the key conceptual breakthroughs that made the integrated circuit possible.

Noyce’s winning smile and unimpeachable confidence, married to his profound technical brilliance, capture in one person the optimism and scientific rigor that powers Silicon Valley’s ongoing revolution to this day.

And yes, we can call it a revolution. While Don Draper and his cohorts on the East Coast were busy trying to think of ways to convince us to buy stuff, Robert Noyce and his West Coast Mad Men were making things that fundamentally changed all of our lives in ways that are still playing out. You didn’t really need a salesman to convince you to buy a personal computer in the ’80s or go online in the ’90s or gird yourself with a smartphone yesterday. The things themselves are their own marketing, because of  what they do, and what they enable.

There are larger stories just hinted at in “Silicon Valley.” During Fairchild’s most profitable years, NASA was buying the vast majority of Fairchild’s chips, a reminder that the digital revolution might never have gotten off the ground without massive government spending. Much is made of the anti-hierarchical “egalitarian” corporate structures pioneered by Noyce that supposedly spread like a benevolent bureaucracy-annihilating virus through the Valley, carried by one start-up spinoff after another. It would be interesting to know just how much of that egalitarian spirit has survived in the modern-day Intel, not to mention the current stars of the Valley scene, like Google and Facebook.

But there’s only so much you can pack into 90 minutes. One sign of a good documentary is that when it ends you are still left wanting more. There’s a reason why we’re fascinated with Silicon Valley. We’re living in the future built by the generations of engineers who started flocking to the region in the ’50s and never stopped.

There’s a moment when one of the engineers at Fairchild reminisces about watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Inside the landing capsule, he knows, were Fairchild semiconductors. “That was our technology,” he says, with no small amount of satisfaction. That satisfaction, the engineer’s sense of having contributed something real to the invention of the future, is the pavement of Silicon Valley. How it all got started is a tale worth telling, again.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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