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Posted: 02:20:24 PM, 16/11/2012

What Sand Dunes have got to do with Silicon Valley

? ?

This valley is not that far, perhaps a 45-60-minute Cessna hop from Reid-Hillview Airport. That would be your best option if you wouldn't be risking snapping a wheel strut on landing. By car (and make it a sturdy one), the trip eats up the better part of a day with a Sierra ascent and descent and a final, hours-long drive over a lonely and pitiless gravel road near Death Valley that chews up tyres and drivers' nerves.

Once you stop and kill your engine at the base of this valley and untangle your nerves, listen for a second; the expanse swallows sound. Then give your eyes a second to comprehend the ghostly white sight before you, an?elephantine, rolling 700-foot-high mountain of smooth white sand that seems to have been plopped in the middle of nowhere, completely out of context.



Eureka SandDunes from Space


This is the Eureka Sand Dunes. They have nothing to do with the Silicon Valley, yet they have everything to do with the Silicon Valley.

"Father" Fred
Fred Emmons Terman was a Stanford brat. His father was a professor there off Palm Drive, down "on the Farm," who sparked gut-churning anxiety among generations of young parents after he popularized the IQ test.

Young Fred had brilliance and promise and an entrepreneurial bent. (The story goes that he hiked into the Palo Alto hills to collect mistletoe and sell it during the holidays to Stanford faculty wives who were afraid?of catching poison oak if they foraged themselves). Perhaps not surprisingly, he did well in school, landing a chemistry degree and a master's in electrical engineering from Stanford. But even a generation or two after Stanford and the University of California had thrown off their training wheels and become established as institutions of higher learning, a promising west Coast student in the 1920s still had to go east "to put spit and polish on his education," Terman would say later. So he hopped aboard a train that chugged east and deposited him in the land of dropped Rs, rocky soil and Puritan values. There, at MIT, he got his doctorate working under the brilliant engineer Vannevar Bush. Ph.D. pigskin in hand, Terman hopped the first train heading west, heading home.



Fred Emmons Terman


Terman, for whatever reason!the climate, his family, the rolling sage-scented hills around Palo Alto!essentially never left after that, and he became an evangelist for valley-grown companies. He wanted the saplings he nurtured in the Stanford engineering department to put down roots nearby like the fruit trees in the orchards that sprawled from just outside the campus down to Gilroy and points unknown.

And nurture he did. Dave Packard. Bill Hewlett. The Varian Brothers. Litton Industries. Watkins-Johnson.?After the war, when everything was sunny, warm and up and to the right in the Golden State, Terman was instrumental in building his own version of a farm, a technology park for budding companies, nurturing ideas sometimes crazy (mad) but often sound. It was an idea for an area that would become the crucible of the future.

Conveniently at the same time capital and government policies were evolving to create what became the venture capital business. Men like Georges Doriot, the "father of venture capitalism," Ralph Flanders and Karl Compton?and others helped nurtured a form of capital formation that shifted start-up investment sources from the gilded piggybanks of already wealthy families to other investors.

In part, Terman got this insight during the war, when he went east again to work on a major radar project at Vannevar Bush's request. He returned to Palo Alto with keen insights to the value of networking and collaboration. He was insistent that students educated locally should have the opportunity to build businesses locally. Otherwise they would continue to migrate back east where the technical jobs were. In the 1950s, Terman convinced Stanford to lease some of its 8,000 un-sellable acres to start-up technology companies. The Stanford Industrial Park, now SRC, was born.

Terman convinced Shockley to come home to Palo Alto; Shockley begat Shockley Transistors, which begat Fairchild Semiconductor, which begat 38 companies over time, the most notable being Intel. The degree of separation between your work and Fred Terman is undoubtedly very small. It is the stuff of lore and legend, and Terman stands above this sizzling swirling soup of invention, investment, destruction and resurrection and reinvention as its progenitor.



Toasting Shockley


But Terman came late to the party.

Ancient history
Sixty-five million years ago began the Cenozoic period, a time in which the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west of Silicon Valley and the Mount Diablo Range to the east were thrust onto the scene. As such, the valley became a "structure valley" because of that building action, as opposed to an "erosional valley."

This ancient, snarling, violent birth yielded a valley sheltered and fertile, a place the?Spanish explorers considered to have the best climate in the world. And its origin as a structure valley arguably turns out to be more than just metaphoric.

The frontier
In 1893, a Wisconsin academic, Frederick Jackson Turner, presented a paper in Chicago describing the frontier's seminal impact on the development of America and the American character. Turner feared that the closing of the frontier might hamstring or destroy American dynamism.

Around the same time, San Jose's population was exploding 50 years after the discovery of gold in California. More than 18,000 people lived in the Santa Clara Valley, and the population was increasing at 30 and 40 per cent per year. But California was the end of the road for this massive, historical migration west. Just over the Santa Cruz Mountains lay the shimmering blue of the Pacific Ocean, the end of the continent. There was no more land to explore, conquer, develop and farm. The frontier was closed. Yet wagon- and train-loads full of people continued to crash into California, the end of the trail.



Old San Jose map


Swirling eddies
Geologists describe something called the aeolian effect. Wind whisks up the top layer of earth!its finest particles!and sweeps them off somewhere to be deposited in some form. Often those depositions undergo another aeolian effect and end up somewhere else or scattered, literally, to the four winds.

In Eureka Valley, the aeolian process swept up the parched, scorched cover layer of an otherwise rocky terrain and has created a natural wonderland in the Eureka Sand Dunes. When the wind picks up here, you can hear is the sound of trillions of sand pebbles whisking across the desert floor or across each other.

The smooth white dunes have never dissipated because of their location: The dunes, surrounded on three sides by mountains, have nowhere to go. Over time, the wind, rather than just blowing the huge sand hills into memory or the next county, reforms them as part of this aeolian process....a sand eddy if you will. The big white elephant shifts, grows, shrinks, wiggles a little this way or that. But it's always there.

Tale of two valleys
Fred Terman is considered the father of the Silicon Valley or at least of the dynamic we associate with the Silicon Valley!that relentless drive to innovate, try, fail, try succeed, and improve, tweak, tinker, revolutionise. History is dotted with Fred Termans whose genius and influence migrated away from their place. But there's something different about this place, a valley shaped by ancient forces...aoelian and Cenozoic forces.


The forces of nature have, for generations since the 19th century, swept up a certain type of people and transported them to the western edge of the North American continent where they hit a valley bounded on three sides by mountains!a "building" valley, not an erosional valley. There, an eddy of ingenuity, of invention and innovation began and continues to swirl today, just like the Eureka Sand Dunes. The energy, the ideas and the people swirl around, reforming, rising, fall and rising again but never, ever, vanishing.


Brian Fuller

EE Times

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