Episode 38: Silicon Valley

Welcome to Slow American English, the podcast for learners of American English. I’m your host, Karren Tolliver.

This is episode number 38: Silicon Valley

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What, or where, exactly is Silicon Valley?

You have probably heard of Silicon Valley, and maybe you know it has something to do with high-tech companies. But where exactly is Silicon Valley? Well, it’s not an official town or city. It’s simply a nickname for the southern part of the San Francisco Bay region in California where many technology companies are. That means it’s on the West Coast of the US in the middle of California’s coastline. Silicon Valley includes not only part of San Francisco, but also the cities of Cupertino, San Jose, Mountain View, and many other communities in the Santa Clara Valley. The population of Silicon Valley is about four million people.

Why is it called Silicon Valley?

For one thing, silicon is an element widely used in electronic components. It’s also known as a semiconductor, and it’s what computer chips are made from.

Second, Silicon Valley is located in an actual, geographical valley where a high-tech boom occurred during the 1980s.

The name Silicon Valley was first used in a 1971 newspaper article. The name stuck, and it gained very widespread use in the 1980s. Today, it means not only the geographical area, but also the tech industry in general, whether in California, the USA or even globally.

How did this region become a high-tech center?

Beginning in the 1800s, this region was important because of San Francisco Bay, the location of a big port on the Pacific Ocean. It was also the location of a US Navy base, which made it a center for early telegraph and radio research and technology. A little later, because of the military presence, the aerospace industry became important there, too. On top of all this, Stanford University was founded in Palo Alto, CA, in 1885. Stanford is considered the intellectual center of Silicon Valley, and many graduates go directly into high-tech work there.

In 1939, Hewlett-Packard (HP today) was founded, and the company grew quickly because they supplied the military with technology during WWII. At this time, one computer took up a whole room.

The transistor was invented in the 1940s, which revolutionized computer technology. Now computers could be made much smaller. In the late 1950s, the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory began manufacturing transistors out of silicon instead of germanium, which had been the standard.

Many immigrants came to Silicon Valley in the late 1960s, which provided a large workforce. In the next few years, the people who had invented transistor technology started their own companies, leading to, among other things, the founding of Intel in 1968.

In 1969, Stanford Research Institute became a part of ARPANET, which was the military forerunner to the Internet. Throughout the 1970s, breakthroughs in technology continued to be made, but the explosive technological expansion of the 1980s established Silicon Valley as the tech center of the US and possibly the world. The growth continues to this day.

Along with all the tech companies, lots of venture capital (VC) companies have appeared. They have the large amounts of money needed to fund new technology innovations and startups. Today, about one-third of the total VC investment money in the USA is in Silicon Valley.

What famous high-tech companies are in Silicon Valley?

Thousands of technology companies are headquartered in Silicon Valley, many of them startups. I can’t list all of the companies here, of course, but you probably have heard of Yahoo, Paypal, Google, Facebook, Apple, Intel, Tesla, Amazon and Twitter. As of 2013, Silicon Valley had about 250,000 tech workers. And that doesn’t include all of the non-tech workers.

Silicon Valley is not only a real place, but it’s also an icon of American and world culture, as well as a part of American English. Almost everyone knows the archetypal story of a technology startup that began in someone’s garage in Silicon Valley and was built into a successful moneymaker. In fact, this actually happened with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple. There is even a television sitcom called “Silicon Valley” that supposedly portrays the life of a startup.

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That’s the podcast for this time. Slow American English is written and produced by Karren Tolliver. Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

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This has been Slow American English. I’m Karren Tolliver. Thank you for listening.