The Birth of Silicon Valley: Radio Leads the Way

Long before computing, Bay Area engineers and hobbyists were transforming communications

1 March 2018

This is the first in a series about the origins of Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley—an area that encompasses San Francisco and its extended suburbs to the south, including San Jose—is commonly known as the tech capital of the world. When most people think of the valley, they probably think of semiconductors, personal computers, and software. But it was a hub for innovation long before the rise of personal computing.

Some consider William Shockley’s silicon transistor company, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, in Mountain View, to be the start of Silicon Valley’s story. Shockley, a Nobel laureate who had grown up in Palo Alto, left Bell Labs in 1956 to establish the laboratory. The following year, several Shockley employees, known as the traitorous eight, left to form Fairchild Semiconductor, a company in Palo Alto that would revolutionize the semiconductor industry.

I’ll tell you more about those events in later articles. But the seeds for what became Silicon Valley were actually sown 50 years earlier.


In the late 1800s, California’s Santa Clara Valley, 80 kilometers south of San Francisco and anchored by San Jose, was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight. The region got the nickname because of its blossoming fruit trees and abundance of agriculture. Shipments of its apricots, cherries, and prunes to the Midwest and East Coast—along with the gold still being mined in the Sierra foothills—brought wealth to the region. Steamships from the Hawaiian Islands and Asia headed for San Francisco’s seaport. But San Francisco was relatively unknown compared with other U.S. cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York.

That began to change in 1909, when Stanford engineering graduate Cyril Elwell sought a better design to replace the noisy radio transmitters of the day. He licensed the Poulsen arc design for transmitters from Denmark—which could send not only Morse code but also voice and music—a big advantage over transmitters of the time. With what we’d now call angel funding from Stanford’s president, David Starr Jordan, and several professors and friends, Elwell formed the Federal Telegraph Co., in Palo Alto. He built more powerful versions of his original transmitter and by 1912 he was able to send messages to Honolulu and receive them as well.

The sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 brought focus to radio as a potential life-saving technology. Although the radio operator on the ship sent out emergency messages that night, the operator on the nearby SS Californian had left his station and gone to bed. Later that year, U.S. federal laws were changed to require shipping companies to have operators monitor radio signals around the clock.

The U.S. Navy liked the technology developed by Federal Telegraph for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications and installed the radio system on its vessels.

By the end of World War I, Federal Telegraph had installed million-watt systems in Panama, the Philippines, and Spain, as well as Arlington, Va., Los Angeles, and Portland, Ore., to support U.S. Navy and commercial shipping companies. Federal Telegraph continued to increase the size and power of its transmitters, and its revenue grew.


Another Stanford engineering student, Charles “Doc” Herrold, started a small radio company in San Francisco, but it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. He moved to San Jose and in 1909 founded the College of Wireless and Engineering to teach radio arts to aspiring hobbyists and operators. His Wednesday evening “San Jose Calling” program, launched that year, was the first regular commercial radio broadcast in the United States.

Herrold’s wife, Sybil, would play music and broadcast it over the station, which eventually grew into San Francisco’s KCBS.

In the next installment, I’ll cover Lee de Forest and his improved Audion tube. Follow me as I explore the early days of Silicon Valley.

Life Fellow Paul Wesling is an IEEE Distinguished Speaker. He is a member of the IEEE Silicon Valley History Committee. Now retired from Hewlett-Packard, Wesling has spent much of the past decade researching the history of Silicon Valley and presenting talks on the subject at universities, IEEE meetings, and other venues. He is speaking at IEEE section meetings on 12 April in New York City and 17 April in Philadelphia.

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