Silicon Valley Then and Now

Silicon Valley got its name from from its industry, but that wasn't just the brain trusts that call the area home now. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, its towns were booming with factories, making hi-tech components for the computer age. Alexis Madrigal found a copy of Rich's Guide to Santa Clara County's Silicon Valley, published in 1983. This inspired him to find out how the area had changed in the past thirty years, from the computer chip manufacturing center it once was to the office space it is now. He found out the transformation of Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, and San Jose didn't come about just from global outsourcing. See, when those factories were built, they were revolutionary in that they didn't "look" like factories.

"Companies had to follow strict building codes, which included 'complete concealment' of things like smokestacks, generators, transformers, ducts, storage tanks, and air conditioning equipment," environmental historian Aaron Sachs wrote in 1999.

Other municipalities wanted to encourage similar developments, and as Sachs concludes, "Stanford Industrial Park essentially replicated itself several times over--each time spurring the construction of new expressways and strip malls in neighboring areas." What began as Stanford dean and Silicon Valley godfather Fred Terman's dream to build "a community of technical scholars" in pleasant industrial parks became the architectural standard for the entire high-tech manufacturing world.

But the manicured look and feel had consequences. Storage tanks were placed underground, out of sight and out of mind. Until suddenly, in 1981, people in south San Jose living near Fairchild Semiconductor and IBM realized they were drinking water contaminated by the two firms' manufacturing plants.

That touched off a search to see if similar leaks were occurring at other sites. "Anyone who looked for leaks found them," Will Bruhns of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. The final count found that 75 of the 96 underground tanks in the south Bay had contaminated the ground and/or water around them.

So Silicon Valley became dotted with Superfund sites. Read more about it at the Atlantic. Link

(Image credit: Alexis Madrigal)


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I used to be in the electronics industry. It amazed me that cities thought of it as a clean neighbor unlike iron foundries or pulp mills. It is a horrendous polluter not only because of the nasty chemicals it requires, but also because operators have the habit of pouring waste onto the ground. In other words, those tanks are not leaking.
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