San Francisco Photographer Charles DiLisio’s Silent Icons of Silicon Valley


I had a great conversation with photographer Charles DiLisio, who is a man with a mission: photographing, and tracking down old photos of some of Silicon Valley’s most important historical buildings for a project he calls, “Silent Icons of Silicon Valley.”

He was recently featured in the San Jose Mercury by veteran columnist Mike Cassidy.

He’s a big fan of the past — the old buildings and the stories they tell about creation, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

He’d save them all if he could, not necessarily by preserving them in the space they occupy, but by capturing them in digital form and then finding a way to show the world what we have here.

For more than a year, he’s been prowling the South Bay, photographing the monuments (or what’s left of them) to the valley’s past: Fairchild, ROLM, Shockley labs, Ampex.

Most of these company names will be new to the people that make up today’s Silicon Valley but they were among the most important companies in the region. They were the Googles, Facebooks, Twitter of their day, and responsible for spinning out hundreds of startups and establishing the area’s stellar reputation as the world’s engine of innovation.

Mr. DiLisio, says that ROLM, for example, was the first company to build a corporate campus and it had tennis courts and swimming pools.

“Some of these buildings don’t exist, or there’s a Lowe’s on the site. I’m trying to track down photographs of the buildings that might be in the possession of alumni groups, or local history buffs.”

Time is running out for some buildings that still exist such as the one that housed Nobel laureate William Shockley and his team (a team later called the “traitorous eight” because they left to start a new business), it is the true birthplace of Silicon Valley.

As he told Mr. Cassidy, the Shockley site is incredibly important.

“This spawned phenomenal change in the world… This spawned the semiconductor and the semiconductor led to computing, communications, the Internet, all the electronics in your car and all the stuff the NSA is doing or not doing, for good or bad.”

He told me that one very large Silicon Valley company wasn’t too keen on publicizing its 45 year anniversary because it didn’t want to be viewed as “old.”  [You don’t have to be an “insider” to guess the name of the company.]

Being an old company in Silicon Valley is quite an achievement given the short life of the majority of the startups, it must be doing something right.

I love history but Silicon Valley doesn’t have much interest in its heritage. It doesn’t really have a united culture, it has many different groups, and communities.

However, since the Google plus Facebook cultures aren’t too different from each other, and as those companies expand their already large workforces, we might now begin to see a distinct culture emerging in Silicon Valley with shared themes in clothes, mannerisms, and lingo. There’s certainly a certain style emerging already.

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, is excellent but it’s a relatively recent institution (founded in 1996) and it took ages to build. Its exhibit area is tragically small and reminiscent of a hotel or corporate lobby area despite having  Its dual use as a large conference center gives the tragically small exhibits area the look of a hotel or corporate lobby, which is unfortunate because it has an incredible collection of artifacts and papers inside its vaults.

It’s online Revolution exhibit is excellent and gives you an idea of the size of its collection.

I love the full size working Babbage engine (photos below), a mass of gears and levers, the first programmable calculating machine and the mother of all computing innovation.

But was it a computer or a printing press? Its only job was to print highly accurate tables of logarithms for Log books. It reflects the merging of computing and media what’s happening now in Silicon Valley. Our technologies are media technologies, they publish information, and most of our companies are technology-enabled media companies. Google publishes pages of content with advertising around it. Facebook, Twitter, etc, too.  Silicon Valley is very much a Media Valley.

However, it’s the tremendous innovations in chip technology that has powered our media technologies, and so much more.

The chip industry has provided an exponential powerhouse of innovation in the extraordinary achievements in chip manufacture. Fifty years of relentless doubling of transistors at ever lower prices has provided a platform of innovation that no other technology can match or will be able to match.

Software engineers might think they are the kings of innovation but they aren’t — its the chip engineers. Don’t confuse the driver of the car with the performance of the car — this isn’t The Flintstones.

Ever faster and ever cheaper chips make bloated software run like a panther, all sleek and agile. Too bad Moore’s Law is running out in about seven years; then software won’t have all those extra cycles to waste like a trust fund brat and will have to get learn to get lean and smart.

It’s fitting that Silicon Valley’s name celebrates its chip heritage and how much the modern world owes to this foundational technology.

Thanks to the historians…

The unique qualities of every place is determined by its invisible history and I applaud the work of Mr. DiLisio and the many others at the Computer History museum, and in local groups of enthusiasts, who are trying to preserve it and display it.

Without them, future generations might never know what it took to build such an amazing place, the source of so much world changing creativity. They might think it was because Mark Zuckerberg moved here to get away from the Winklevoss twins and the cold Boston winters.

Photo credit: San Jose Mercury


Tom Foremski
Tom Foremski is the Editor and Founder of the popular and top-ranked news site Silicon Valley Watcher, reporting on business and culture of innovation. He is a former journalist at the Financial Times and in 2004, became the first journalist from a leading newspaper to resign and become a full-time journalist blogger.

Tom has been reporting on Silicon Valley and the US tech industry since 1984 and has been named as one of the top 50 (#28) most influential bloggers in Silicon Valley. His current focus is on the convergence of media and technology — the making of a new era for Silicon Valley. He also writes a column at ZDNET.
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