Monday, February 17, 2014

The Future Trumps the Past (Silicon Valley, Mount Vernon, our swingset. . .)

The other evening I looked out across the lawn and was startled to see that someone had removed our swing set. It was one of those big, wooden contraptions with a treehouse and slide, so you can imagine the effort it must have taken to steal it from right under our noses.

Wait. Then I remembered: About a year ago, with our three kids in junior and senior high school and nobody paying much attention to it, we had given the swing set away to a friend. All that fun, all those sunny afternoons pushing kids. Gone.

Still, if I looked closely, I could see that the grass was a slightly different color where all the wood chips had been. In a few years time, though, even that evidence will be gone.  Someday when we sell the house the next family will never know just how special that patch of ground once was.

This summer, our family had the chance to travel in Europe. My favorite stop of the trip was unquestionably the city of Pompeii.

Founded in the 8th century BCE, buried by lava from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, covered by centuries of dust and accidentally rediscovered 1,700 years later, this important ancient city was just another swing set that happened to disappear. The grass grew, people walked on top of it, and everyone forgot. For seventeen centuries.

How does this stuff happen?  One of the dirty little secrets about history, and what makes it so very difficult to preserve, is that the future almost always trumps the past.

I realized this when I was researching King Philip’s War in New England. I would ride out to check on a garrison used by the English during the war (1675/6) and find a 6,000-square foot home with a three car garage, which had replaced a dilapidated 18th-century farmhouse, which had been extended from a 17th century two-room home, which sat on the foundation of, and used some of the wood from, the garrison for which I was searching.

As great as it would have been to have that old garrison to explore, the business of life—like feeding a family, staying warm, and making a living—clearly took precedence over preserving the past.  And it still does.

If it were not for the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon--abused, ignored and falling down around itself--would likely have faded into oblivion. If we’re willing to let the Father of Our Country’s homestead fall apart, what chance does a garrison house in rural New England have?

Given the effort that goes into living, the grass grows quickly and easily over our history.

So, it was with interest that I read the New York Times’ “Bits” blog—"Buying Tomatoes at the Birthplace of Silicon Valley"--about the Fiesta Super Market, a fruit and meat market in Mountain View, California, which had previously been the International Produce Market and, before that, a furniture store.
Today, the shop offers fruits and vegetables, a large meat section and some specialty international items. Missing, however, is a display once present at the old store that talked about William Shockley, the physicist who started a semiconductor laboratory on the site and hired many of the chip industry’s founding fathers.

There are still a couple of historical markers located on the sidewalk outside of the shop. The signs boast of the site’s place as the home of the “first silicon device and research manufacturing company in Silicon Valley.”

In 1956, Dr. Shockley picked the spot on San Antonio Road as the headquarters for his semiconductor start-up. It had been a fruit packing shed up to that point — a natural service, given the region’s then-dominant business of agriculture. But Shockley pushed out the fruit sorting equipment and made way for gear better suited to scientific experiments around semiconductors.

Dr. Shockley won a Nobel Prize that same year, receiving credit as co-inventor of the transistor in 1947 while at Bell Labs. With such fame and obvious genius, Shockley was able to recruit some of the most talented young minds and pull them way out to Northern California. His early hires included Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore.
From there, members of his talented staff eventually headed off to form Fairchild Semiconductor and launch dozens of Fairchildren through the years, creating the Silicon Valley we know today--or, at least, the one we knew yesterday.

And what about that site, where Fairchild was born?

“The original Fairchild site — 844 East Charleston Road — is about a mile and a half from Mr. Shockley’s lab. An interior design firm currently occupies the two-story building where Fairchild’s researchers created the first 'commercially practicable' integrated circuit, a device that helped pave the way for modern microprocessors.”

The New York Times interviewed, Leslie Berlin, the project historian for Stanford University’s Silicon Valley archives. She said, “This is a place that is always focused on the future. The companies and people these landmarks are named for are always about the next thing coming down the pike.”

She’s right, but not enough. It’s not just Silicon Valley that feels this way about its history. It’s almost anywhere and everywhere in America.

If you are lucky enough to be the Father of your Country--after the Federal government and state of Virginia declined to preserve your home--you might be lucky enough to find a group of passionate patriots to rescue your homestead. If you only happen to have founded a major Roman city, invented the semiconductor, established the world's most important technology region, or owned a beloved swing set, however, you probably don’t stand a chance.  Mostly the grass just keeps growing.

(This post was rescued from a dead spot in September 2008.  Aforementioned children are now in or mostly through college.)