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Valley of Genius

The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom)

By Adam Fisher
16-minute read
Audio available
Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom) by Adam Fisher

Few areas have risen to global prominence as quickly as Silicon Valley. Valley of Genius (2018) takes us on a roller-coaster ride of invention, discovery, reinvention and disruption, tracing the history of Silicon Valley from the advent of the personal computer through to the creation of the social media platforms of today.

  • Anyone interested in the history of the computers and technology we rely on every day
  • People curious about the culture of the tech community
  • Anyone who enjoys a tale of endeavor, ideas and personality

Adam Fisher is a thinker and writer focused on technology, its origins and its future. As well as researching and writing Valley of Genius, Fisher has written for Wired, MIT Tech Review and the New York Times Sunday magazine.

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Valley of Genius

The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom)

By Adam Fisher
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom) by Adam Fisher
Synopsis

Few areas have risen to global prominence as quickly as Silicon Valley. Valley of Genius (2018) takes us on a roller-coaster ride of invention, discovery, reinvention and disruption, tracing the history of Silicon Valley from the advent of the personal computer through to the creation of the social media platforms of today.

Key idea 1 of 10

Atari was the first huge Silicon Valley boom and bust story.

The classic Silicon Valley story goes something like this: some kid with a radical idea puts together something cool, builds around it a freewheeling business with like-minded techies and becomes insanely rich in the process.

Atari, and its founder, Nolan Bushnell, pretty much wrote that script.

As a student in the 1960s, Bushnell once snuck into a computer lab late at night to play Spacewar, one of the first computer games. Seeing the possibilities this completely new form of entertainment offered, the entrepreneurial Bushnell set up Atari.

Atari’s first completed game was Pong. It was a simple game – like table tennis, played on an arcade machine, with incredibly basic graphics and controls. But it became a phenomenal success.

Bushnell put the first Pong arcade machine in the corner of a local bar. Soon thereafter, Atari got a call from the bar owner to say the machine had stopped working. When an Atari engineer got to the bar, they realized that the problem was simple: the coin box was so full of quarters that it wouldn’t take any more. In this one bar, Pong was taking in $300 a week – a huge amount, considering Bushnell could manufacture more Pong machines for $350 each.

To deliver as many new machines as possible, early Atari employees worked incredibly hard. But, at the same time, there was a hedonistic side to the culture at Atari. Out back, the smell of marijuana smoke was always in the air. Coworkers slept with each other. There was cocaine use in the company hot tub.

This culture started to cause problems after the company was sold to Warner for $30 million in 1976, by which point Atari had progressed beyond just arcade machines and launched one of the first-ever video game consoles. The takeover brought a more corporate approach, as well as a new CEO, a serious businessman named Ray Kassar who’d previously headed Ralph Lauren. His ethos could hardly have differed more from Bushnell’s. Indeed, when the men met for the first time, Bushnell was wearing a T-shirt with the words “I like to fuck” written on it.  

The culture clash between the new corporate owners and the freewheeling company atmosphere started to cause problems. Key engineers left, unsatisfied with the company culture, and Atari struggled to reinvent itself after its early success. By 1984, it had crashed completely. Split into smaller parts, the company was sold off.

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