In the 1960s, America’s electronic technology was emerging in two key locations: along the Route 128 belt in Massachusetts that curves in an arc with a 15-mile radius around Boston, and on the peninsula south of San Francisco.
Both areas drew upon strong university resources. Cambridge, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University scientists and engineers, fueled the Route 128 developments; Stanford University and its related Palo Alto research community provided the primary core in California. Starting about even in the mid-1960s, California’s Silicon Valley, encompassing the area from San Jose to San Francisco, moved significantly beyond the Route 128 center to become the pre-eminent national and international leader in computer tech.
A casual conversation with a very high-level Wang Labs executive in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the latter half of the 1970s, contained a significant foretelling of the shift that was to take place. That Wang policy maker shared what would prove to be the company’s mistaken, short-sighted, and fatal perspective: “Small computers are a nice toy, but they can’t possibly replace the word processing technology that we have developed for the printing and publishing world.”
Several authors have examined and analyzed, in depth, the evolution of the pre-eminence of Silicon Valley.
In her 1994 Inc. article “Silicon Valley Versus Route 128,” AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, details the business crises that simultaneously hit each area when Silicon Valley chip makers were overtaken by the Japanese semiconductor industry and Route 128 minicomputer companies were overtaken by the shift to workstations and personal computers.
Supported by in-depth studies of several specific companies in each setting, Saxenian concludes that Silicon Valley’s successful emergence and new growth was built on a culture that values and promotes collective learning and flexible adjustment, and companies that make specialty products within a broad range of related technologies. She also cites the region’s social networks and open labor markets, which encourage entrepreneurship and experimentation.
In contrast, the Route 128 region’s industrial system contains vertically integrated independent companies that keep largely to themselves. Secrecy and corporate loyalty govern relations between the more traditionally organized companies and their customers, suppliers, and competitors, reinforcing a regional culture that encourages stability and self-reliance, with centralized authority and information that tends to flow vertically only.
Demographics expert Paul Mackun traced industrial evolution in these two areas 25 years later, in his netvalley.com article “Silicon Valley and Route 128: Two Faces of the American Technopolis.” In comparing the histories, attitudes, and strategies most conducive to long-term success in the two settings, Mackun observed a direct contrast between the Silicon Valley’s “reliance on risk-taking and partnerships” and eastern Massachusetts’s “emphasis upon convention, decorum, and self-reliance.”
Elizabeth Charnock of Bloomberg focuses on Silicon Valley’s unique approach to failure as what makes the region very successful, observing “the mantra adopted by Silicon Valley is ‘fail fast’ while the rest of the world follows the mantra of ‘don’t fail.’”