Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History

A revolution began here. And this is what is left over.
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siliconvalley_center.jpg
Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0. Data by OpenStreetMap, under CC BY SA.

The precise center of Silicon Valley when it was the most important manufacturing region on Earth is now home to Super Space Self Storage.

I was able to map this location thanks to Richard E. Schmieder, who drove 6,000 miles around Silicon Valley, collecting the addresses of more than a thousand corporate headquarters, branch offices, restaurants, and hotels. He published this exhaustive niche Yellow Pages as Rich's Guide to Santa Clara County's Silicon Valley in 1983.

I discovered a copy of this rare book in Berkeley's library system and realized that it was a fantastic dataset: If I stuck all of the locations onto a map, I could reconstruct the Valley as it was 30 years ago, right before the Japanese manufacturers and the forces of globalization pulled and pushed chip production to East Asia. And though the idea of Silicon Valley does not allow for history, the place, itself, cannot escape it. The Valley we know now, the Paypal-Google-Facebook one, got built right on top of the original boom towns. 

In our Internet-happy present, it's easy to forget that up until the mid-1980s, Silicon Valley was an industrial landscape. Hundreds of manufacturers lined the streets of Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, and San Jose. This is the Silicon Valley when AMD, Apple, Applied Materials, Atari, Fairchild, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, National Semiconductor, Varian Associates, Xerox, and hundreds of other companies made their products right here in the Bay.

The Valley was as important a manufacturing center as Detroit or Pittsburgh were. This was the place making the foundational technology of the era, and it brought prosperity to the region. Between 1964 and 1984, Santa Clara County added 203,000 manufacturing jobs, according to a report by the Association of Bay Area Governments; 85 percent of them were in high-tech. Another economist found that Santa Clara County's manufacturing growth had driven the economic well-being of the entire Bay Area during that period. Without the growth of Valley manufacturing, the San Francisco and Oakland's economies would have severely suffered, not to mention the rest of the country's. This was the industrial heartland of America, even if it was nestled against the San Francisco Bay.

In other words, Rich's Guide, I realized, would let me map this first peak of Silicon Valley, the one that gave meaning to the term high-tech. With substantial help from my colleague on The Atlantic WirePhilip Bump, we put this map together. If you worked in the Valley at the time, it should take you back to the days of Ampex, Varian Associates, and the Rusty Scupper. But there's plenty to see, even if you only know the area by reputation.

For example, you'll find Apple headquarters at 20525 Mariana Ave, just across De Anza Boulevard from the current HQ at 1 Infinite Loop. They were part of a little cluster of companies just off Interstate 280, south of the hottest action up closer to Highway 101. Most of the rest have not survived -- Braegen Corp., Iconix, International Memories, Tymshare, Four-Phase Systems. Yet these same people would have all visited the Peppermill Lounge for some 80s-"fern bar" refreshment.

After geocoding all these points -- i.e. finding all their latitudes and longitudes -- I could compute the average of all the locations on the map. In a meaningful sense, the spot was the very center of the corporate ecosystem that we call Silicon Valley in 1983.

My math says it's located in Sunnyvale, south of 101 between North Wolfe Road and the Lawrence Expressway at precisely 37.38260152 degrees north, 122.0094996784 degrees west.

As luck would have it, this spot was smack in the middle of the headquarters of chipmaker and long-time Intel rival, Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD, in a complex centered at 901 Thompson Place. 

AMD_901.JPG
The AMD headquarters in 1975 (David Laws)

This is what it looks like now, in its self-storage incarnation:

selfstorage_570.jpgGoogle Maps

We can see the back of the Super Space Self-Storage. There is no sign of the AMD buildings that once stood here. 

I had to see for myself what had become of the center of the Valley, so I got in my car and headed across the Bay Bridge and down the peninsula. I'd use the single block surrounding the center of the old Valley to understand what had happened to this place not as a footnote in a history of the computing industry, but as a landscape. What I found was second-generation suburbia with a far more complex story than the standard Silicon Valley narrative about cherry orchards and the making of a glorious revolution.

* * *

As always, it was sunny in Sunnyvale. I got off at the exit for Moffett Field, the set of facilities that made this area a hotbed of early aerospace (and therefore computing) activity. After a few lights I made a left onto the Central Expressway and zoomed past endless town homes and old suburbs onto Arques Avenue. I parked the car at the Super Space Self-Storage, took out the memorial sign I'd printed, and walked across the street to take some wide-angle photographs of the building.

There was nothing particularly interesting about it. Like most self-storage locations, the building is blocky and windowless. It's nestled in-between a massive Lowe's and Cheetah's, "a small neighborhood strip club," according to a Google Plus review. As I snapped away, a single pedestrian walked by, an Asian man in khakis and a tucked-in, short-sleeved collared shirt. Traffic came and went: a Camry, a Jeep, a Subaru, big white van. Just another part of the great California carscape, it would seem.

centerofsilicon.jpg
The center of Silicon Valley, 1983 (Alexis Madrigal)

As I walked back across the street, I found a big guy walking towards me. "Well, you got our curiosity piqued," he said, pointing to my camera. He had a soul patch and wore an checked Oxford monogrammed with the name of the self-storage place. All-in, he looked like Ted Danson, if Danson lifted weights. This was Geoffrey Taylor, manager of the facility.

I explained myself to him, trying not to sound completely ridiculous. "And so, I calculated that, in 1983, this was the center of Silicon Valley, and I came down here to see it --"

"And you ended up at a Superfund site," he said.

I did?

"This was AMD," Taylor continued. "They manufactured chips here."

I went inside and met his staff, enjoying the air conditioning. They told me about the building's many amenities for the discerning self-storage customer: climate-control, special locks, security systems. "Who needs this type of service?" I asked.

"I'd say 75 percent of our clientele is transient engineers working for the tech companies," Taylor told me. They were almost all from India and east Asia.

I left my car in the parking lot and headed southeast. Past Cheetah's, there was a large office building being leased by two commercial real-estate brokers named Dixie Divine and Doug Ferrari. 

The businesses around were an odd melange: a Bank of America, two auto-body shops, the 5-Star School for Music, a semiconductor company called Synerchip, a signal-processing designer called Teledyne Cougar, and Sri Ananda Bhavan, a bustling south Indian restaurant. At the corner of Deguine Drive, a newly built retail space sat empty, looking almost precisely like the sad, shuttered video stores you see all over America.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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