Today, as I write this, Linda and I visited the local Los Altos History Museum to see an exhibit titled “Silicon Valley: The Lure and the Legends.” The theme of the exhibit centered on the technology explosion which has taken place over the last one hundred years in this former valley of orchards. As a retired electrical engineer involved in and intrigued by this colorful history, I know the stories well – the people and the technology companies, many of which have come and gone and changed our lives forever. The institution most responsible for all of this is still here and thriving like never before: The Leland Stanford Junior University.
Founded in 1891 by Leland and Jane Stanford as a memorial to Leland Stanford Junior, their only child who died suddenly and early at the age of sixteen years, the university in nearby Palo Alto, California, was the seed-stock from which Silicon Valley took root. It continues to influence the region in a major way, to this day.
The eastern academics who the Stanfords initially consulted ridiculed their proposal to erect a first-tier university out in the “intellectual wastelands” of frontier California, but the Stanfords had the foresight, the will, and the money to brush aside discouraging nay-sayers and proceed with their dream. The echoes of Horace Greeley’s well-publicized advice to “Go west, young man, go west!” must have resonated with them. The Leland Stanford Junior University was to be a memorial to their only child… and a gift to the “children of California.”
Seldom in history has a personal vision played-out so well. The university not only fulfilled its original, stated purposes, it has played a major role in transforming life as we know it through the technology companies it has spawned over the last several decades. Besides educating generations of engineers, like myself, the school provided the impetus for its graduates to stay in California and start new companies to pioneer new technologies. Prior to the nineteen-thirties, newly-minted engineers from west of the Mississippi would head to the east coast where companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and IBM were the established industrial players….with ready jobs.
Stanford soon had something else besides fine weather and elbow-room that none of the old, established schools in the east, including the Ivies, could match – and that was professor Frederick Terman in the electrical engineering department – later longtime Dean of Engineering at Stanford.
Like Leland and Jane Stanford, Fred Terman foresaw the potential of the young university and its western environs. It was Terman who, as early as the nineteen-thirties when orchards still covered the land around here, envisioned Stanford University as a technology center surrounded by vast numbers of research and development companies which derived their mother’s milk from Stanford’s presence. Fred Terman was dead-center with his vision, and what he visualized is precisely what we have today in Silicon Valley – thanks largely to his efforts.
To ponder the changes in this valley over the last sixty years as the result of Stanford University’s influence is to marvel at the enormous gamble of Leland and Jane Stanford in the eighteen-eighties and how marvelously prescient they were!
As perhaps one of the earliest examples of the university’s role in this valley, I am able to show you an early founder’s stock certificate dated 1910 from the Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company located in Palo Alto, near the campus. It is for over one million shares of the company, assigned to the president and founder of the company, Cyril Elwell. Elwell was a 1907 engineering graduate of Stanford whose company pioneered early wireless (radio) in the area and quickly became the Federal Telegraph Company. To initially finance his company, Elwell borrowed $500 from David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president. Additional funding came from other faculty members thus heralding the beginning of the huge venture capital tradition which has always played a key role in this valley’s dynamic growth.
The scope of Stanford’s influence is not confined to just the local region, or even to California; the university and its influence have significantly determined the way many of us live our lives, today. I can cite many specific reasons for the truth of that statement, but that would not be appropriate, here. Suffice it to say that technology has changed the world, and Stanford has played a major role in its pervasiveness within society. The companies spawned by Stanford and the research which takes place on campus have revolutionized all aspects of human existence – from our understanding of nuclear physics to state-of-the-art cancer research at the Stanford Medical Center.
For those young students interested in studying the liberal arts, business, the law, or medicine, Stanford also offers a top-tier education that is second to none. My advice to young students: Keep those grades up; you’ll find it very tough to be admitted. If you don’t make it here, try the Ivy League schools!
A visit to Wikipedia on the internet will yield many of the pertinent facts about Stanford which support the above contentions. The school’s large array of Nobel laureates is but one indicator of Stanford’s world-role.
Yes, I knew all of this before, but I had to pause and reflect on it all yet again after seeing the Silicon Valley exhibit and film, today. Periodically refreshing one’s perspective (I love that word!) is so important. The story of Stanford University and its role in Silicon Valley is unique; what a fine gift to the “children of California,” and what a timeless memorial to young Leland Stanford Junior.