Silicon Valley history

The Beginning of Silicon Valley's History

There have been many theories over the years as to what created the economic region known as the Silicon Valley. Some of these theories point to the ‘Wild West’ or cowboy ethic, the risk-taking of gold miners or whatever the newest technology was that transformed the Valley or the world.

The seminal seed of Silicon Valley was planted by a former U.S. Senator, who himself could be called a serial entrepreneur. Like all seedlings, it takes other conditions to take root and grow. In this case, the original seedling was Leland Stanford, Sr.

Stanford grew up in rural New York, earned a law degree, and moved to Wisconsin to practice law. Stanford’s father gave him the reward of an outstanding law library. When his law office and library burned to the ground in 1852, Stanford, and later his wife Jane Lathrop, followed his five brothers to Sacramento, California, to run a business selling supplies to the gold prospectors.

Leland Stanford served for two years as the governor of California. He was known as the Civil War governor who had exerted his powers to keep the state in the Union and aid President Lincoln. He and three associates, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Colis P. Huntington, organized the Central Pacific Railroad; later they completed the western part of the first transcontinental railroad. They also bought out the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, which had reached Mayfield (now Palo Alto's California Avenue district) in 1863 and San Jose early the next year.

In 1874, Stanford, who presided over the Central Pacific (later the Southern Pacific), moved from Sacramento to a Nob Hill mansion in San Francisco. A fancier of trotters and racehorses, he sought a country retreat. He found one near el Palo Alto, the landmark redwood where the first exploring Spaniards had camped in 1769. There the governor built up a horse farm that became America's most famous. Gradually he acquired more than 8,000 acres.

Stanford and his wife, Jane Lathrop Stanford, were touring Europe when their only son, Leland Jr., 15, contracted typhoid fever and died in Italy in 1884. The heartbroken parents soon decided that his memorial would be a university, with their Palo Alto estate part of its unprecedented $20 million endowment. Plans for the project dominated Stanford's attention, even after the California Legislature elected him a United States senator. In business he had met many eastern college graduates whose education had left them ill-prepared for the workaday world. One of the standards he set was that the university qualify its students for personal success and direct usefulness in life. The sciences would be given their proper place, not denied — as on most other campuses of that era.

On October 1, 1891, Leland Stanford Junior University opened. Enrollment at the tuition-free institution almost doubled expectations with 440 students, about one-quarter women. By the second semester it had swelled to 559. The professed wish of the grieving Stanfords that "The children of California shall be our children" had begun to be fulfilled. And from its start, the university served not just the children of California but of the world.

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This video covers early Santa Clara Valley history — starting in 1891 with the founding of Stanford University — and also explores the history of  Federal Telegraph, Magnavox and the invention of the television.

World War II was an important part of Silicon Valley's history. The klystron (a specialized linear-beam vacuum tube or evacuated electron tube) was developed by Sigurd and Russell Varian while at Stanford University. The device was critical in locating and destroying enemy Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic during World War II. This film segment covers the story of the Varian Brothers, the development of the klystron and founding of Varian Associates