Silicon (atomic number 14, for those in the know) is all around us. It makes up a quarter of the Earth’s crust. Ancient humans used it in their first tools. And today’s humans use it
for their tools: Because silicon is a fine semiconductor, the processor chips that power today’s computers are silicon-based.
That’s why the part of California south of San Francisco Bay and home to tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook and many others is known as Silicon Valley.
It’s famed for young entrepreneurs who turned bright ideas into billion-dollar businesses, for venture capitalists who bankrolled their dreams, and most of all for innovation.
Other regions in the U.S. and other nations have tried to duplicate the formula. You’ll find them outside New York and Boston and in Norway (SiliconFjord), Germany (Silicon Saxony), India (Bangalore), China (the Zhongguancun technology center in Beijing), Israel (Silicon Wadi), Dubai (Silicon Oasis), Kenya (Silicon Savannah) and Brazil (Campinas).
Many have launched successful startups, but none have quite matched Silicon Valley, a 32-kilometer stretch of Santa Clara Valley that includes San Jose, Mountain View and Palo Alto, home to Stanford University.
In Secrets of Silicon Valley, author Deborah Perry Piscione likens the region to “an active volcano that erupts every few years” with new ideas, technologies and business models.
It started erupting a century ago with engineering breakthroughs in radio and electronics. In 1938, Hewlett-Packard founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard conceived their first invention, a device for testing sound equipment, in a rented Palo Alto garage. Steve Jobs tinkered at home before he and Steve Wozniak unveiled the first Apple computer in 1976.
Immigrant innovators have found Silicon Valley especially hospitable. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Russia; Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is from India; Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and head of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, is from South Africa; the late Intel CEO Andrew Grove was Hungarian.
Americans long have migrated west to build companies in Silicon Valley, among them transistor inventor William Shockley and Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg, who headed to Palo Alto after launching the social network from a Harvard dorm room in 2004.
All were drawn by a climate that rewards innovation and tolerates failure. Most startups never get off the ground, but that doesn’t deter aspiring entrepreneurs from pressing forward with their next big idea.
The Valley enjoys a number of advantages, but, as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman explains, “Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location.”