Siliconia touches the world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2002, 12:00am

Among digital coinages, none glitters more than 'Siliconia'.

It suggests something magical - an Arcadia where faithful workhorse computers are put out to pasture when their processors can no longer keep up the pace.

In fact, Siliconia means the blossoming of a phenomenon prompted by the birth of a place synonymous with the rise of computing: Silicon Valley. Located south of San Francisco, Silicon Valley radiates outwards from Stanford University and is bordered by San Francisco Bay to the east and the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west.

Until the middle of the last century, this fertile region meant walnuts and apricots rather than microchips, and was known as the Valley of Heart's Delight.

The seeds of the valley's information technology (IT) boom were sown at Stanford University in the 1920s, when university administrators tried to boost their institution's prestige by hiring esteemed faculty members from East Coast universities.

Along came Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of electrical engineering Frederick Terman, now acknowledged as the father of Silicon Valley.

Concerned about a brain drain - the trend among Stanford graduates to decamp to the East Coast because the valley lacked jobs - Mr Terman urged some of his students to found companies locally. Among his proteges were William Hewlett and David Packard, who formed you know which company, fostering the valley's reputation as a hive of innovation and enterprise.

The link with silicon began in 1955 when, together with some young East Coast boffins, Stanford graduate William Shockley founded Shockley Transistor. The firm pioneered an alternative to the commercially unreliable vacuum tube - a 'transfer resistor' based on the versatile semiconductor, silicon, which was destined to power the hi-tech revolution.

The man credited with giving the Valley of Heart's Delight a new hi-tech name was journalist Don Hoefler: proving that technology journalists are central to the advancement of civilisation.

Writing in industry tabloid Electronic News in 1971, he used the phrase to describe the explosion of electronics firms throughout Santa Clara.

Since then, copycat Siliconia enclaves have emerged around the globe, spreading from west to east. Indeed, these days, every disused car park, every scrap of scrub or wasteland with a couple of not necessarily extant computer firms nearby is dubbed Silicon Something by a journalist or public relations hack.

The empire of Siliconia features the majestically named Silicon Saxony. The east German state has won this title because it is a hub of biotechnology, electronics and software firms, which sprang up around the state capital of Dresden in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Ironically, in the Iron Curtain era, the low-lying area around Dresden was known as the 'valley of the clueless' since locals could not tune into Western television.

An area with quite the reverse reputation, Oxford, England, is known as Silicon Spires. The term is supposedly gaining currency to denote the hi-tech software and biotech companies evolving on the city's perimeter, often as university spin-offs. The term derives from 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold's celebrated description of Oxford as 'the City of Dreaming Spires'.

In contrast, the Netherlands possesses the Silicon Polder. Several initiatives to boost Dutch IT companies use this name because much of the country consists of polders, or reclaimed land.

What next? Silicon Quagmire? Silicon Bog? No, but Florida boasts a Silicon Swamp.

Meanwhile, Malaysia has the infinitely swisher-sounding Teknopolis - an area that radiates from the nation's top technological college, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Johor Technology Park and the Technovation Park. The government is desperately promoting Teknopolis as a crucible for IT-related companies.

Similarly, Shanghai, the rising star of Siliconia, is having 150 billion yuan (about HK$140.6 billion) pumped into its IT sector and many more billions into its integrated circuit industry.

The way things are going, soon Siliconia will be bigger than Australia - well, Luxembourg.

But its birthplace retains a huge, dynamic concentration of powerful companies and a business infrastructure which, experts agree, will be impossible to replicate anywhere else. It looks as if the valley runs so deep that it will never be exhausted or superseded by start-up Siliconian clones.

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