November 22, 2017

Troublemakers: the people who put Silicon Valley on the map

Troublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Any casual reader whose knowledge about Silicon Valley comes from the headlines or the news online might get the impression that Steve Jobs and the Google and Facebook guys invented the place. Obviously, this is far from true. But even more serious coverage tends to focus on a handful of high-profile individuals who have played outsize roles in the development of the high-tech industry. Stanford historian Leslie Berlin sets the record straight with her engrossing new book, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age. 

Troublemakers chronicles a critical period in the Valley’s history (1969-76). Those seven years witnessed “the most significant and diverse burst of technological innovation of the past 150 years . . . Five major industries were born: personal computing, video games, advanced semiconductor logic, modern venture capital, and biotechnology.”

“Innovation is a team sport,” Berlin writes in the introduction to her book. She makes clear that her intention is to tell the stories of more than just the usual suspects. “Troublemakers . . . feature[s] some of the most famous names in Silicon Valley history, while also profiling seven other individuals in depth.” More famous people such as Steve Jobs and Larry Page make brief appearances. Berlin’s account highlights:

  • Bob Taylor, who led the creation of the rudimentary computer network at the Pentagon, in a sense “inventing” the Internet;
  • Mike Markkula, the man who made it possible for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to launch and build Apple;
  • Sandra Kurtzig, a software pioneer who was “the first woman to take a technology company public;”
  • Bob Swanson, a cofounder of Genentech;
  • Al Alcorn, who designed the video game Pong that launched the game giant Atari; and
  • Niels Riemer, the man who patented recombinant DNA for Stanford University, thus kickstarting the biotech industry.

Every one of these seven people could be the subject of their own biography. Berlin brings their stories to life through one-on-one interviews—all but Bob Taylor and Bob Swanson are still alive—while placing their accomplishments into the context of their time and place. As a professional historian specializing in this region—Berlin is Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University—she deftly meshes personal accounts by her subjects with extensive archival research.

To my mind, the most impressive of these seven individuals is Bob Taylor. As a key player at ARPA (the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, now called DARPA) in the 1960s, he helped lay the foundation for the Internet. Later, in the 1970s, as the director of computer science research at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), he assembled what was widely considered the most talented group of computer scientists anywhere in the world—and possibly the most talented ever brought together anywhere. These extraordinary men (and a handful of women) created the Alto, the world’s first personal computer with a graphic user interface (GUI), mouse, windows, and networking ability. It’s astonishing to most observers that the Xerox Corporation failed to commercialize the Alto. Only years later did Apple’s Macintosh begin to approach the capabilities of the Alto. (A former key player at PARC thought of the early Mac as a toy.)

You might also be interested in several other reviews I’ve posted: “The new Steve Jobs biography is terrific!,” “Confessions of a Silicon Valley techie,” “The iPhone: the world’s most profitable product?,” and “35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.” And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017. This book is one of them.

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Mal Warwick