UW News

July 11, 2019

National attention, praise for new Silicon Valley history ‘The Code’ by UW historian Margaret O’Mara

UW News

Margaret O'Mara's history of Silicon Valley was published in July by Penguin Press.

Margaret O’Mara’s history of Silicon Valley was published in July by Penguin Press.

Her sweeping new book about the history of Silicon Valley has University of Washington history professor Margaret O’Mara on a busy national book tour this summer. The book, “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,” was published this month by Penguin Press and is receiving many positive reviews.

Margaret O’Mara and
‘The Code’ at UW Bookstore
6-8 p.m. July 15
O’Mara will read from and discuss her new history of Silicon Valley July 15, at the University of Washington Bookstore, 4326 University Way N.E.

“The Code” takes the reader from the post-World War II beginnings of computer technology to the garages and dorm rooms of the emerging computer titans, through the dot.com boom and bust and up to the social media-saturated present.

O’Mara explores the power dynamics — and deeply ingrained misogyny — that kept women from full participation in this tech revolution. And she reminds readers that Silicon Valley’s boom was supported in large part by taxpayers via grants from the federal government.

Publishers Weekly said the book “puts a gloriously human face on the history of computing in the U.S.,” and calls it “a must-read for anyone interested in how a one-horse town birthed a revolution that has shifted the course of modern civilization.”

Critic and New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, who wrote a history of Google, called “The Code” a “vital and important” book.


Coverage for “The Code”

“With the deftness of a novelist and the care of a scholar, (O’Mara) guides the reader on an exciting journey — from the pioneers who birthed Silicon Valley, to often overlooked government dollars that served as its spur, to portraits of both famed individuals like Jobs and Gates and of those who deserved to be famous, in an industry that both inspires and horrifies.”

In an interview posted by Penguin Press, O’Mara is asked why the tech revolution exploded in California rather than New York, Boston or even Houston. The West Coast was the right place, and the early Cold War the right time, she said, for people to seize such an entrepreneurial opportunity — and the area’s relative geographic isolation helped, too.

“Far removed from the era’s capitals of politics and finance, the sleepy valley was able to create a tech Galapagos of distinctive business species,” she said. “Startups, law firms, marketing operations, and more — bound by tight personal and professional connections.” Add to that the waves of highly creative and capable immigrants who ventured to the valley, “and you have a region unlike any other.”

Asked about the relationship between Silicon Valley and the Cold War race to the moon — days now from the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11’s historic landing — O’Mara said until researching the book she hadn’t realized the “enormous” role the space race played in the valley’s history.

“The Apollo program became the first and largest customer for newly created integrated circuits and other small electronics the valley built, really jump-starting the semiconductor industry,” she said. That also set the area apart from other tech hubs like Los Angeles and Seattle, “which built things like airplanes, on a large scale, while the valley built small.”

Social media has amplified hate and polarized people; O’Mara was asked if the idealism of Silicon Valley computers changing the world was always “an illusion” or if it could still be realized. 

O’Mara said when she began work on “The Code” five years back, “it was hard to puncture the resolute techno-optimism about Silicon Valley — not just in the valley, but in media and political circles as well.

“Now the pendulum of popular and political opinion has swung so violently in the other direction that it can be hard to see the good that tech has done. But it has.

We are walking around with supercomputers in our pockets, and the gift cards in our wallets … have more computing power than the rockets that sent American astronauts to the moon.  Even fractious and fractured social media platforms have elevated new voices, held the powerful accountable, and connected people across time and space.”

Asked if reviewing the history of Silicon Valley encourages her to think that big tech may yet help solve complex world problems, she said that individual and collective human action is where change comes from, and Silicon Valley “had amassed … an extraordinary well of human talent, of people who truly do want to change the world for the better.

“They can do that if they reckon with their history—and understand that solutions won’t come only from better tech, but from recognizing interconnections between government and tech, between old and new economy sectors, between technical and non-technical people.”

History, she said, “makes me an optimist. When you study history, you understand that nothing is inevitable, and nearly everything is changeable.”


For more information, visit www.margaretomara.com.