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Why Isn't Silicon Valley in New England?

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 3, 2012 12:34 PM

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Robert Noyce left Cambridge in the 1950s, and took Silicon Valley with him.

Boston is home to lots of innovative industries, and has been for decades -- but the real heart of computer innovation is still in Silicon Valley. Writing at his website, Economic Principles, David Warsh offers this surprising explanation:

The present-day fate of New England goes back to an argument at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the ’50s about that material from which semiconductors, well understood locally from wartime work on radar, were to be manufactured in the years ahead. Dogma held that it would be germanium; silicon crystals would be too difficult to purify to the required degree.  Robert Noyce, an MIT-trained physicist, thought otherwise.

When MIT declined to tenure him, Noyce decamped, first to Philadelphia, then to the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, in Mountain View, California.  Silicon leadership went with him – to Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, each of which he co-founded, And eventually to Silicon Valley, centered around San Jose, which the two firms spawned. New England never developed a vigorous industry in silicon chips. By the end of the ’70s, savvy venture capitalists had begun migrating to Palo Alto’s Sand Hill Road.

It all comes down to one bad judgment on a tenure committee! More -- including some thoughts on what a graying New England means for the economy -- here: "Winter in New England."

Update: As awesome as this story is, it seems like many of the facts are wrong. As reader dcbrock comments below, "A nice story but absolutely false. Noyce earned his PhD in physics from MIT, and was never on its faculty. Instead he declined offers from some of the most prestigious industrial research labs and instead joined Philco in Philadelphia that was an emerging leader in semiconductor electronics. Since Noyce was never on the faculty of MIT, they never considered him for tenure." You can read more about Noyce in this great profile from Esquire, written by Tom Wolfe.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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