Abstract: America's Overseas Empire and the Begninnings of Silicon Valley

Stephen B. Adams


Silicon Valley's first major firm was founded in 1909 by an Australian (Cyril Elwell) using Danish technology. The Federal Telegraph Company set up its technical and manufacturing operations in Palo Alto, near Elwell's alma mater (Stanford University, known as "the Farm"). Federal garnered significant revenue only after the U.S. Navy became a major customer, seeking communications capabilities for its fleet and the bases of America's nascent overseas empire. The story of Federal Telegraph, and therefore the early history of Silicon Valley, is incomplete unless it is also framed within the context of American foreign policy. The Federal Telegraph Company was headquartered in San Francisco, which provided the firm access to customers, resources, administrative expertise, and political skill. America's largest city west of the Mississippi, San Francisco was a financial center and port near several major naval installations, and acted as a gateway to the Orient—and to much of America's overseas empire. Therefore, while the technical operations of Silicon Valley's earliest major high-tech enterprise began in an agricultural region, the company began with far from a clean slate. Instead it is a story of both American nationalism and urban influence.