Thursday, November 10, 2022

Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2005).

Forty years ago, I had just graduated from a law school that is part of a private research university in what is now known as Silicon Valley. At the time, this was a somewhat sleepy area, tucked among the wealthy southern suburbs of San Francisco but devoid of much industry—except for Hewlett-Packard, located just southeast of campus on Page Mill Road, which made hand-held calculators for engineering students.

I now wonder at the personages among whom I lived at the time, and occasionally ponder what might have happened if I had invested my law school tuition with some of the startups occurring all around me. Frequently, after this painful exercise, I consider what it was about the area that was so conducive to entrepreneurial activity in the early 1980s. Here’s where Kevin Starr, in his California: A History, has much to contribute.

Starr characterizes California’s culture as historically “open, flexible, unembarrassed by the profit motive,” emerging “as a society friendly to the search for utopia through science and technology.” Mining brought riches to northern California, with the railroad following, and the development of hydroelectric power and agricultural irrigation coming not long after. Aviation, vacuum tubes, atomic power, the semiconductor industry, and biotechnology have all bloomed in California.

There is something about the culture, something in the air that is almost tangible, and it has been this way for a long time. Starr, reviewing the successive waves of entrepreneurial activity and technological progress that have arisen in California, sums it up in one sentence. “In each instance,” he writes, “the specific scientific, engineering, or technological advance emerging from California was linked to the effort to discover a truth, solve a problem, make a profit, make productive use of one’s time, and, in the process, make the world a better and more interesting place.”

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