The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
Centerpieces   Places of Invention
An exhibition under development

Places of Invention tells the stories of historic and modern communities where people, resources, and spaces have come together to spark inventiveness.

Invention hot spot:
Silicon Valley and the beginnings of the computer revolution in the 1970s

Hewlett-Packard garage

The iconic Hewlett-Packard garage in 2009. Courtesy of BrokenSphere/ Wikimedia Commons.

Frederick Terman

Frederick Terman. Courtesy of the IEEE History Center.

Altair 8800 personal computer

The Altair 8800 personal computer kit, designed around the Intel 8080 chip and manufactured by a small firm in New Mexico. The first microcomputer to sell in large numbers, the Altair helped launch a new industry. Smithsonian image 88-19284.

Intel co-founders (left to right) Andrew Grove, Robert Noyce, and Gordon Moore

Intel co-founders (left to right) Andrew Grove, Robert Noyce, and Gordon Moore. Courtesy of the Intel Museum.

January 1975 Popular Electronics announcement

This January 1975 Popular Electronics announcement helped launch the personal computing industry. Courtesy of DigiBarn Computer Museum and Stan Veit.


Clusters, hot spots, hubs--the names vary, but they exist around the world: geographical concentrations of people, institutions, and resources that leverage regional strengths to support innovation. Perhaps the most emulated high-tech hot spot is Silicon Valley.

Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe wrote in 1998 that "Silicon Valley is the only place on earth not trying to figure out how to become Silicon Valley." It has proven to be a tough region to replicate. While the entrepreneurial spirit, groundbreaking ideas, and technical dexterity of the Valley's pioneers cannot be underestimated, technology writer Michael Malone points out that "[T]he real strength of the valley lies in its embrace of failure. Not stupid failure but noble failure--the mistake that teaches you something about the business, the market, the technology or, most of all, about yourself. The simple fact is that 90 percent of all Valley startups die. Thus, were failure stigmatized here, the valley would disappear almost overnight." A look at a few of Silicon Valley's origin stories illustrates how instances of failure, success, and serendipity, as well as crucial attitudes toward those factors, turned a valley of peach groves into a synonym for invention.

Frederick Terman grew up in Palo Alto and studied electrical ("radio") engineering at Stanford. He moved across the country for graduate work and completed his doctorate at MIT. Terman accepted a faculty position there in 1924, but during a visit home, he contracted tuberculosis and ended up back at Stanford so the California climate might sustain his recovery.

Among Terman's students at Stanford were David Packard and William Hewlett. When they graduated in 1934, both men moved east. To lure back his protégés, Terman secured engineering fellowships for them at Stanford. When Hewlett and Packard returned and set up shop in their now-iconic garage, Terman provided a loan to help kickstart their audio oscillators manufacturing business.

Terman's influence stretched beyond mentoring Hewlett and Packard. In 1951, Stanford's administrators, keen to capitalize on the university's vacant land, created the country's first high-technology industrial park. Terman urged the university to structure the Stanford Industrial Park as a bridge between university researchers and local businesspeople. When Hewlett-Packard leased space in the Park in 1954, General Electric, Eastman Kodak, Lockheed Martin, and dozens of other firms followed suit. The Park became a model for similar parks worldwide.

In the next phase of the Valley's evolution as a place of invention, a critical mass of innovative companies crystallized, combining entrepreneurial spirit, expertise, and a willingness to exchange information. Adaptive attitudes toward failure and chance also played a role.

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-- Amanda Murray

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