A bird's eye view map of San Francisco in 1873

From the gold rush to World War II to the current tech boom, workers and entrepreneurs have flocked to the Bay Area to make their fortunes and spend their money. We’ll examine how past economic booms and busts have shaped the Bay Area as part of KQED’s new Boomtown series. The series will explore the changing Bay Area — the surging economy, the cost of living, gentrification and displacement.

Show Highlights

Population Increase

"One of the things we forget about these booms is that there's an incredible churning of population… Those 10,000 people — each year it's a different 10,000. They're in, they're out, they're gone. And that's one of the characteristics of boomtowns, then, and I think now, too."

– Richard White

Tight Real Estate Market

"There have been a series of boom in San Francisco, involving real estate speculation. Consider this, during the Gold Rush and throughout the 1850s — people think the property situation and the real estate situation is acute right now, and indeed it is, but then, people were buying water lots. They were buying geographical areas in the bay with the anticipation that the bay would ulimately be filled in to the point that they would be able to build on that area."

– Christopher O'Sullivan


"One thing that really separates this boom from some of the previous ones is people are justifiably feeling the income inequality of this current boom. That wasn't really a major factor with some of the previous booms, particularly, the Second World War and Cold War boom. A lot of the jobs that were being created by that government largess, coming to the Bay Area, were working class jobs. They were jobs in shipbuilding and ancillary industries and things like that."

– Christopher O'Sullivan


I think [universities were a] big mitigating factor in alleviating the possibility of backlash during earlier booms in a way that isn't there today. Because if you look at it from the perspective of a young person, even if you weren't directly benefiting from the earlier industrial and ship building booms you were living in a state that in some ways was wisely taking advantage of that boom and investing in public infrastructure, and the most important part of that was public ed. California for a brief golden period from about the Warren administration up until a few decades ago was one of the few places in the world where you could go to school from K through PhD for free."

– Christopher O'Sullivan

Role of Immigrants

"65 percent of the people with bachelor's degrees in Silicon Valley were born in another country. I mean this is amazing — two thirds of the people who have completed college are born outside the country. Half of the companies started between 1995 and 2005, half of them have at least one founder who was born outside of the United States… I think this constant sort of refresh, this sort of intellectual refresh, that comes with new waves of immigrants just can't be underestimated."

– Leslie Berlin

Is the Tech Boom the New Gold Rush? A History of California’s Booms and Busts 6 January,2015forum

Richard White, professor of American history at Stanford University and author of "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America"
Christopher O'Sullivan, teacher of California history at the University of San Francisco
Leslie Berlin, project historian at the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University and author of "The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley"
Holly Kernan, executive editor of KQED News

  • Guest

    I feel that a certain percentage of the local population is entirely committed to a parasitic existence, living off the wealth of people who came here to achieve something. I speak of the landlords who fill every crevice with yet another renter seeking lower rent. I speak of the house flippers who buy up dumps, add a thin coat of paint and then sell them to less clever investors. I speak of the real estate agents who add nothing to society but drive around in fancy cars. And I have seen that there are many working in tech who are parasites, whose achievements consist of adding a couple buttons to a website, or whose grand plan is entering middle management where the work is easy. For every 1 person who achieves something, be it well paid for or not, there are 100 who didn’t.

    • Bob Fry

      Not to mention the parasites who spend their days posting wacky conspiracy theories online.

      • Frank

        Bob Fry is a parasite who wants to increase the corruption and injustice in the world. The more powerful the con man, the bigger the con man’s lies, the more Bob Fry gets excited. Bob Fry is a small monkey who adores the big apes and gets giddy about being subservient to them.

        • geraldfnord

          I don’t know that, butI do know in general that the authoritarian follower is the real problem…but it’s an old problem, primate hierarchies _live_ by kiss-up/kick-down, one more set of genes to excise.

        • Robert Thomas

          Over the mark, Frank.

          • Frank

            People who reject ideas they don’t like by spouting the epithet “conspiracy theory” typically are not rational thinkers and often they have a perverse respect for bogus authority.

  • marte48

    While you are talking about the government’s role in Silicon Valley, don’t forget to mention DARPA net.

    • Kurt thialfad

      Recall, all those ads for defense jobs, stated clearly at the bottom:
      “US Citizenship Required”.
      The idea that Silicon Valley was founded by foreign immigrants is total myth.

      • Another Mike

        I remember all the fresh graduates I knew who were kept idle at their defense contractor employers, until their security clearances came through.

    • Another Mike

      The boomers I know who were born here all had dads who worked for Lockheed. Wozniak’s dad worked for Lockheed. I worked with a reservist who served at the Blue Cube.

      The ARPAnet was not localized to Silicon Valley.

      • Robert Thomas

        In my neighborhood, near Union Avenue and Los Gatos Almaden Road, everyone else’s dad seemed to work at Lockheed or IBM.

        I only heard this discussion in the second broadcast, else I would have tried to ask a question about how the accepted history – that I had more or less accepted myself until recently – of [Hewlett Packard & Shockley Transistor -> Fairchild -> Intel] describing the evolution of its progress is in fact only part of the story of the Valley’s technology industry (or even [Hewlett Packard & Varian & Ampex & Watkins Johnson & Shockley Transistor -> Fairchild -> Intel]) and is incomplete and misleading to the point of factual error.

        Just as important or perhaps more so were Lockheed, Westinghouse and especially IBM.

        The rolling out here of the Stanford-centric narrative is unsurprising considering how often it is repeated and with Ms Berlin on the panel.

  • Another Mike

    One reason is that there is great natural beauty as well as outdoor activities. This active lifestyle appeals to creative risk takers. You can ski in the morning and surf in the evening.

  • Another Mike

    What’s up with Vinod Khosla, by the way? He is as atypical of Indian engineers as possible, buying an area of natural beauty only to deny access to others.

    • Skip Conrad

      Maybe he is not atypical of Indian engineers.

  • Another Mike

    Regarding the caller’s point: I have been using yahoo since two students started it on a Stanford server.

  • MV

    With regards to “the more things change, the more they stay the same”: This time is different. SF natives like myself and long term residents are not being displaced so much by a *cultural* shift, but by an *economic* shift thanks to real estate speculation and pressure on the housing brought by tech workers who are incentivized to live in SF while they work in the suburbs.

  • Another Mike

    As a young engineer living in SF while working down the Peninsula (before it was Silicon Valley), a fellow I later knew helped bankroll an SF club, whose house band was the Jefferson Airplane. The Matrix opened in 1965.That’s how long this has been going on.

    As long as SF offers things to do, and members of the appropriate sex to meet, young techies will flock there.

  • Robert Thomas

    What boom? What bust?

    As the guests remind us, California has seen many convulsions since before statehood and up to the present. But since the commencement of great expansion during WWII, the Santa Clara Valley and our technical industry here (which the panel correctly notes were much stimulated and financed by war time and cold war federal investment), while it has weathered the more or less regular waxing and waining of its progress, has never “busted”.

    From the perspective of San Francisco – far away from us geographically and far away also constitutionally in its world of public relations, marketing, advertising and sales – the on-line retail sales flurry of the late 1990s, attracting as it did legions of eager, inexperienced young copywriters masquerading as “web designers” however technologically unskilled, undoubtedly the advent must have seemed a boom and a bust.

    There was no corresponding severe oscillation however in our industry beyond a short-lived contraction. For those of us who were planning budgets during the period and who had also been doing so during, for example, the business turmoil from 1989 to 1995, those earlier doldrums were more severe. And 1980? 1974? – now there were real slumps.

    Whether San Francisco’s current dalliances with billboard management firms such as Twitter or radio dispatch services like Uber or its vogue as picturesque bedroom community for childless, unencumbered twenty-somethings will persist and for how long, who can say?

  • Robert Thomas

    In 1943, in Endicott, New York (near Binghamton) a wartime site selection committee at International Business Machines considered both war effort and post-war operations that IBM would pursue outside of its northeastern U.S. and Canadian installations. The committee unanimously agreed on locating its first western U.S. operation in San Jose.

    “The decision was unanimously in favor of San Jose because of its being a home community with good schools and its advantageous locations and facilities.”

    Site Selection Committee, 1943
    IBM Corporation

    “On August 22, 1943, two special railway cars arrived in San Jose, Calif., carrying IBMers who were to operate the company’s first West Coast manufacturing facility: a card plant (located in the former Temple Laundry) at Sixteenth and St. John Streets. In that pioneering contingent from IBM’s Endicott and Washington [D.C.] plants were 92 IBMers and family members, plus 13 single women who had replaced men in war service. An additional nine locally-hired employees were on the roster when the plant was dedicated by Thomas J. Watson, Sr., on September 10, 1943. In July 1960, punched card manufacturing was moved from San Jose to a new facility in Campbell, Calif.
    “From that small card plant starting with 52 employees, IBM grew in the San Jose area to include a research and manufacturing center at Monterey and Cottle Roads, a card plant in Campbell, a large branch office, the Almaden Research Center and more than 3,000 employees.”

    “San Jose Card Plant” (Plant 5)
    IBM Archives

    The Stanford – Hewlett Packard – Shockley – Fairchild – Intel narrative provides the standard – and persuasive – story for the progress of our industry. However, this unjustifiably marginalizes the roles in the development of our region played by Lockheed, Westinghouse and especially by IBM. (I’m not and have never been an employee of IBM.)

    • Robert Thomas

      The original San Jose IBM research laboratory was established by Reynold B. Johnson and his team in a small building at 99 Notre Dame Avenue in the city center in 1952. In 1956, they introduced the IBM model 350 storage unit, the world’s first magnetic disk storage device, a technology – along with the transistor invented by William Shockley and his team at Bell Laboratories and the subsequent planar process silicon gate MOSFET integrated circuit developed by Robert Noyce and coworkers at Fairchild in Palo Alto – that is a base of all modern computational and communications systems upon which billions of people rely every moment of every day.

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