MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Now that the end times are here for the building that rightfully claims to be the birthplace of Silicon Valley, there is no shortage of ideas about how to commemorate the spot where the valley's pioneers first put silicon to work in an effort to build the world's first practical semiconductor.
The truth is, the work at Shockley labs at 391 San Antonio Road did lead to that chip, but not in a straight-line sort of way. Instead digital ground was truly broken when eight of William Shockley's employees, known as the Traitorous Eight, left him in 1957 to form their own company.
Now that the building is slated to be torn down to make way for a huge development, any number of proposals have surfaced to save it, memorialize it, enshrine it, etc.
I have my own proposal, incorporating part of the old Shockley building into the new construction. I shared my vision in a column that you can find at http://www.mercurynews.com/mike-cassidy. And I've asked you to send your ideas to me at email@example.com or to send them on Twitter at @mikecassidy.
The interest in the old lab isn't surprising. The building, a many times made-over structure, is almost mythical in the minds of those who care about how Silicon Valley got its start.
"That is where Shockley hired a brilliant bunch of people," says David Laws, a curator at the Computer History Museum and one of the foremost experts on the history of the semiconductor industry. "Many of them went on to brilliant careers from there. A lot of buildings have been celebrated for a lot less."
Yes, among the Shockley crowd were Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, who went on to co-found Intel (INTC); and Jean Hoenri, who came up with the first practical way to mass produce semiconductors; and Eugene Kleiner, who helped found Kleiner Perkins, the venture capital company that invested in Sun Microsystems, Netscape, Google (GOOG), Electronic Arts (ERTS), Amazon and AOL to name a few. Moreover, historians say that as many as 400 companies, or Fairchildren, trace their roots to Fairchild.
So, the ideas: The boldest (and as is the case with bold things, perhaps the least likely) is being put forth by retired Palo Alto attorney Harold Hohbach, himself a bit of a character. Hohbach would like developer Merlone Geier Partners to give the building to a non-profit that would operate it as a museum, complete with replicas of artifacts of Shockley's time.
"Just seeing an old building will never get you anywhere," Hohbach says. "I think it's important to preserve the technology that they developed in that building."
Hohbach doesn't have just a passing fancy in the history of Silicon Valley. The 91-year-old says his law partner was William Shockley's patent attorney. Not only that, he's spent the past decade commissioning and attempting to curate a series of seven huge paintings depicting innovators grouped around their breakthroughs. There's Shockley, Noyce and Moore. There's Russell Varian, Ray Dolby, Reynolds Johnson, Douglas Englebart, Gene Amdahl, Steve Wozniak and on and on.
Hohbach realizes there are details to work out with his plans for 391 San Antonio -- such as who is going to pay for all this. But he is not one to back down even from a long shot.
When it comes to proposals for the building, the odds on favorite, no doubt, is the preliminary one put forth by Merlone Geier. The company owns the building, after all, and is the midst of a $500-million remake of the old San Antonio Center. To their credit, the executives at Merlone Geier know they are now the stewards of an important legacy. The Shockley building itself does not delight them. It is old and ugly and in disrepair. But the story of the rise of Silicon Valley enthralls them.
"I think a lot of people would look at this as, 'Oh gee, now I have to deal with this issue," says Merlone Geier vice president Mike Grehl. "To me, this is going to be a neat amenity to the project to create a uniqueness."
What Merlone Geier has in mind is an artistic memorial at the site of the building on San Antonio Road. Then the developer would add an educational area, perhaps in an outdoor plaza in the development, that would tell the story of what happened in Shockley labs and how that spawned Silicon Valley and the digital revolution.
The company has enlisted a couple of former Shockley employees and Dick Ahrons, of the IEEE, an organization of electrical and electronics engineers. He likes the idea of an artistic memorial and what he calls a "technology plaza" that would be open to the public.
My idea for the building, he says, raises a number of issues.
"I thought about keeping the front part of the building, as a facade. And you look at it and you look at it and, it's just not there anymore," he says, noting that the building has been through extensive remodels.
He says my idea -- using the facade as an office building entryway stocked with replicas of Shockley-era tools and devices -- would require constant upkeep. And it would place the memorial inside a private building, which might restrict public access. Artifacts of the era, he says, belong at the nearby Computer History Museum (which does have some Shockley artifacts). And maybe some sort of facade idea would work there, too, though it would be quite an expense to refurbish the facade and move it across town.
"If it's at the museum, it's open to the public and so on," he says.
The good news in all this is that the people coming up with these ideas all care about preserving the history of how 391 San Antonio Road changed the world. And better still, chances are that new ideas will continue to surface as the discussion goes on.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.