By Michael Osborne and Leslie Chang
Where does the Silicon Valley story actually begin? That was one of our first questions when we started developing the “Origins of Silicon Valley” podcast series. Turns out, we didn’t have to look very far.
Stanford University isn’t just in Silicon Valley – Stanford created Silicon Valley.
Stanford wasn’t always a top university with razor-slim acceptance rates. The events that helped transform Stanford into a destination for aspiring entrepreneurs and technologists didn’t transpire until the mid-20th century. (We trace that part of the story in the next episode.) But when Leland and Jane Stanford founded the school in 1885, they instilled values that are woven into Silicon Valley’s culture today.
Leland Stanford Sr. built his fortune by partnering with a group of ruthless men who called themselves The Associates. They masterminded America’s first transcontinental railroad, which spanned North America. This audacious undertaking was a technological triumph, but it was only made possible because of massive backing by the federal government and the Associates’ willingness to exploit Chinese labor and destroy Native American lands. The surprising thing, though, is that despite the fanfare the transcontinental turned out to be a financial failure. It lost huge sums of money and it dragged Leland into a world of corruption, greed, and deceit.
Like many contemporary Silicon Valley leaders, Leland believed he was deploying technology for the greater good of society. He believed he was helping to build America. Perhaps his faith in technological progress allowed him to rationalize his hunger for power.
When Jane and Leland Sr. lost their one and only son, Leland Jr., they decided to create a university in his honor. Then, shortly after the university was founded, Leland Sr. died unexpectedly. Jane was left alone, and it was up to her to keep the school running. She quickly evolved from a Victorian wife into an impressive power broker in her own right, earning the nickname “Iron Will Jane.” Were it not for her, there would be no Stanford University.
Leland Sr. and Jane were full of paradoxes. As products of the Gilded Age, they benefited from a system that allowed extremely wealthy people to operate independently from the rest of society. Yet, the couple were also progressive. Leland was an abolitionist. He and Jane gave money to suffragist Susan B. Anthony. And in Stanford’s founding decree, they enshrined egalitarian principles, determined to differentiate their California university from east coast institutions.
Silicon Valley’s history is replete with complicated figures, and part of the challenge in interpreting the Valley’s influence comes in separating the technologists from the technology.
Today, Stanford continues to fuel the economic engine of Silicon Valley. The list of companies founded by Stanford alumni is impressive, and there’s no shortage of innovations that were first conceived and developed on the Stanford campus. But it is not our goal to fawn over the technologies themselves. Our series is not a history of business – it’s a history of culture. And looking back at Silicon Valley we can trace a long tradition of corporations at the cutting edge of technology that earn enormous profits while claiming to advance freedom and opportunity around the world.
That belief, it turns out, has been here since the beginning.