In 1885, the wealthy industrialist and tycoon Leland Stanford and his wife Jane, shortly after becoming governor of California, established the Leland Stanford Junior University in memory of their only child. The university stood on a vast track of land owned by the Stanfords, which would eventually become Silicon Valley. Opening in 1891, the university began offering agricultural studies but this soon expanded to include other fields of study.
It was professors, graduates, and students of Stanford University who contributed largely to the birth of the technological age in the area.
In 1909, Stanford instructor Cyril Elwell purchased the rights to a radio transmission technology. Called the “arc converter” or “Poulsen arc” after its inventor, it was capable of transmitting sound via radio waves. Elwell, along with other Stanford instructors, refined the technology. He soon established the Poulsen Wireless Telegraph Company (later renamed Federal Telegraph Company) and began selling the technology to the United States Navy. By the First World War, the Poulsen arc was in use in US battleships. The technology would eventually be supplanted but it is significant as it was the first technological company to be founded in the future Silicon Valley.
Fred Terman, considered to be the Father of Silicon Valley, is a graduate of Stanford who returned to the university to teach in 1925. In the mid-1930s, he became a professor and chairman of the Electrical Engineering Department. At that time, he came across a device called a “resistance-tuned oscillator” which was supposed to produce repetitive electronic signals but was not working right. He approached two of his former students, and they discussed the possibility of getting the device to work. After working into the early morning hours at the garage of a rented home in Palo Alto, and with a US$1,000 grant secured by Terman, the team produced a precision audio oscillator. Walt Disney Company purchased eight units of the device and was soon back for more. In 1939, the two students established their own company named after a combination of their own names. They tossed a coin to determine whose name should come first. It was Bill Hewlett who won over Dave Packard.
Fred Terman would continue his work in electronics through the Second World War and after. Other like-minded instructors, graduates, and students of the university likewise conducted researches and experiments that eventually led to developments in radar and microwave technology, the invention of silicon-based transistors and integrated circuits, and microprocessors.