Silicon Valley’s Two Daddies

July 11, 2012

Multiple Pages
Silicon Valley’s Two Daddies

With Silicon Valley back on top of the world, it’s time to point out a bit of unwelcome history. 

There are two competing narratives about the technology hub’s origins:

• The famous tale of how William Shockley’s obnoxious management style led to start-up silicon chipmakers such as Intel;
• The less-familiar version centering on Stanford professor Frederick Terman and Hewlett-Packard. 

What has almost never been pointed out is that the two rivals for the title of Father of Silicon Valley, Shockley and Terman, have common roots in early 20th century Palo Alto’s scientific and ideological consensus, a now extremely unfashionable worldview that has been driven underground but remains fundamental to how Silicon Valley actually succeeds in the 21st century.

William Shockley (1910-1989) grew up in Palo Alto, where his mother graduated from Stanford. During WWII, he was in charge of training Army Air Corps crews to use radar to find German bombing targets. After the war, Shockley worked at Bell Labs on a replacement for the glass vacuum tubes Lee de Forest perfected in Palo Alto 100 years ago.

Peeved when his name wasn’t included on the patent application for the 1947 invention of the transistor by his Bell Labs underlings John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, Shockley holed up in a hotel room and devised a new kind of transistor that would be easier to manufacture. Together, the three won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics. (Bardeen came home from the medal ceremony in Stockholm and set to work on a wholly new idea that won him a still-unique second Physics Nobel. There were giants in those days.)

“The worldview that Palo Alto’s early 20th-century IQ testers and eugenicists developed explains part of the basis for the American economy’s most productive sector in the 21st century.”

When Shockley decided in 1956 to set up his own R&D lab to commercialize silicon semiconductors, Stanford provost Terman encouraged him to return to his native region where he could be near his widowed mother. With Terman’s help, Shockley hired eight brilliant young assistants. They soon rebelled against Shockley’s obstreperous management style and quit Shockley Semiconductor. The “Traitorous Eight”—notably Intel’s Robert Noyce (“The Mayor of Silicon Valley”) and Gordon Moore (“Moore’s Law”)—went on to found most of Silicon Valley’s major chip companies.

Shockley then became a Stanford professor under Terman. At Stanford, he made himself one of America’s most hated men by pointing out the difference in average IQ between whites and blacks, noting the evidence for substantial heritability of intelligence and suggesting government subsidies to encourage less intelligent people to forgo reproducing.

Shockley was the first to put the “silicon” in Silicon Valley (a term coined in 1971), but before him had come Fred Terman (1900-1982). In Valley lore, Terman is best known as the avuncular academic who mentored his old students William Hewlett and David Packard in 1938 as they founded HP in a Palo Alto garage to make oscilloscopes. In 1951, Terman had the university create the Stanford Industrial Park and rent it out to tech companies, forming the core of Silicon Valley. He encouraged his grad students to start companies and hire Stanford professors as consultants, establishing the tech entrepreneurship template.

But that was more Terman’s cover story. During WWII, while Shockley was training bomber crews to use radar against Germany, Terman headed the 800-man lab at Harvard that figured out how bombers could jam German air-defense radar. When he returned to Stanford, he became one of the great Cold Warriors, the central figure in Northern California’s military-industrial-intelligence-education complex. Terman’s covert “Microwave Valley” provided the electronic intelligence equipment on the U2 spy planes that flew over the Soviet Union and on the spy satellites that succeeded them.


Libertarians like to imagine that Silicon Valley is the product of an immaculate capitalist conception with no messy government involvement. Yet it was actually kick-started in the 1950s and 1960s by billions in taxpayer dollars spent on gizmos for preventing or fighting nuclear war.

Silicon Valley chroniclers usually treat Shockley’s eugenics campaign as a regrettable and idiosyncratic anomaly. Yet Shockley was merely trumpeting what had long been a prevalent ideology in Palo Alto dating back to Stanford’s founding president, David Starr Jordan. In 1902, Jordan published a pamphlet, The Blood of the Nation, that made a eugenic case against war, arguing that the battlefield kills the bravest and best. (Jordan’s argument became widely accepted in Britain after World War I.)

Strikingly, Fred Terman’s father, Lewis Terman, a Stanford psychologist, was the father of IQ testing in America. In 1916, he published the Stanford-Binet IQ test, America’s first. Lewis Terman became a prominent eugenics advocate.

In 1921, Terman began his landmark study of gifted children with IQs of 135 and above, which continues even today to track its dwindling band of aged subjects. (Ironically, the young William Shockley was nominated for inclusion in Lewis Terman’s study, but his test score fell just short of the cutoff.) To the public’s surprise, “Terman’s Termites” showed that highly intelligent children were not particularly likely to grow up to be misfits like the much publicized prodigy/bad example William James Sidis. Indeed, the higher the IQ, the better the outcome. Terman’s study was an early landmark in Nerd Liberation, one of the 20th century’s most important social developments.

His son inherited Lewis’s biases: Fred Terman’s wife of 47 years, who had been one of his father’s grad students, said he only became serious about courting her after he went to the Psych Department and looked up her IQ score.

Of course, all that IQ and eugenics stuff was just pseudoscience, and it’s all been forgotten in modern Silicon Valley, right?

No, not really. To get into Stanford today, you have to score higher than ever on the IQ-like SAT. Students who scored a perfect 800 on the SAT math test make up 26 percent of Stanford’s freshman class. Silicon Valley firms such as Google make a cult of recruiting high-IQ workers, constantly devising clever ways to identify the clever. 

Silicon Valley has largely managed to stonewall the diversity enforcers. Jesse Jackson has been bringing his racial shakedown tour to town since the 1990s, with relatively little to show for it other than some Go Away money. Shockley would be hardly surprised to learn that black, Latino, and female shares of the complex jobs in Silicon Valley are low and falling.

In summary, the worldview that Palo Alto’s early 20th-century IQ testers and eugenicists developed explains part of the basis for the American economy’s most productive sector in the 21st century.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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