Much has been done in recent years regarding the modern barons of Silicon Valley, from "The Social Network" to the TNT movie "Pirates of Silicon Valley" to the upcoming movie "Jobs," which screened at Sundance, to a possible HBO series from Mike Judge.
Considerably less attention, however, has been focused on the early days of the tech boom. PBS' "American Experience" seeks to address that gap with "Silicon Valley," a 90-minute documentary premiering Feb. 5 that explores the roots of the digital explosion, from the "Mad Men" era through the Moon landing and into the early 1970s. It's interesting stuff if, as assembled, a little wonky and flat in places.
The most fascinating part of the doc, frankly, is marveling at how quickly we got from there -- when transistors were introduced and computers the size of a room -- to here, with one the size of a credit card in practically everyone's pocket.
As "Silicon Valley" makes clear, we owe much of that evolution to Robert Noyce, the genius who designed the integrated circuit -- which played a pivotal role in the U.S.'s Apollo space program -- and went on to form Intel, where the invention of the microprocessor paved the way for the digital age. Much of the story unfolds through Noyce, described as "a physicist with a brilliant mind and the affability of a born salesman."
There's also plenty of corporate jockeying and egos -- particularly within Fairchild Semiconductor, where the explosion of brain-power under Noyce wound up spinning off a hundred different companies. Each key player experienced what's described as a "killing dad" moment, as every major innovation undercut a previous employer or colleague.
Beyond the tech talk, which can become a little numbing unless you're really into that sort of thing, there's the big business and venture capitalism surrounding all the technology, and some general color about how everyone hung out at the same bar with "a lot of hanky-panky going on," as one Valley-ite recalls. Fortunately, "Mad Men" has already taught us people still liked sex in the age of skinny ties and white shirts.
"Silicon Valley" essentially culminates with the formation of Intel in 1971, making it ripe for a documentary sequel, as well as its own dramatic retelling. For anyone looking for a little perspective on how the Northern California tech enclave came to earn its reputation, it's worth tuning in. Although if you wait a day or two, I'm sure you'll be able to find the whole thing -- or at least the best parts of it -- available on your iPad.
Take that, dad.