It is logical that O'Mara (Cities of Knowledge; Pivotal Tuesdays) has focused her historical scholarship uniting the evolution of technology, Silicon Valley, and the U.S. political system in her latest book. The author utilizes first-person accounts and primary sources to explain how the world as we know it is run by software and how that came to be. The story unfolds after World War II, and describes how America's military might, governmental influence, and disrupter after disrupter resulted in a story of survival of the fittest in Silicon Valley. Taking readers through the Vietnam era, micro revolution, and cultural revolution and interweaving late 20th-century politics as confounding influences, the book leads us up through the 2016 election and how the tech industry's pipeline problem was baked in from the start. VERDICT In a field crowded with accounts of how the tech industry has developed, this work places the story of our techno-human transformation within a thoughtful Darwinian context. A necessary addition to both public and academic library collections, it will become a reference for how technology has influenced America.—Nancy Marksbury, Keuka Coll., Keuka Park, NY
This “only-in-America story” from O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor, puts a gloriously human face on the history of computing in the U.S. Her weighty but gripping account tracks Silicon Valley through four stages: 1949’s Palo Alto, a soporific town distinguished only by the presence of Stanford University; the 1960s transition from an industry focused on electronics to one dominated by information; the anti-establishment upstart entrepreneurs of the ’70s; and the breathless present, when the Valley is filled with people of unprecedented influence and wealth. Introducing pioneering players such as early venture capitalist David Morgenthaler, programmer Ann Hardy (who resisted pressure at IBM to accept the customary female role of “systems service girl”), and, inevitably, Steve Jobs, alongside such lesser-known figures as developer Trish Millines, O’Mara paints a picture of a world into which tech exploded unexpectedly, with far-reaching political and cultural results. Particularly fascinating sections include discussions of how and why the U.S. government invested in tech, the intersection of software and the military, the rise and impact of hackers, and Silicon Valley’s financial impact on a vastly transformed—and increasingly impossible to afford—Bay Area. O’Mara’s extraordinarily comprehensive history is a must-read for anyone interested in how a one-horse town birthed a revolution that has shifted the course of modern civilization. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writer’s House. (July)
A Financial Times Best Book of 2019
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2019
Longlisted for the Porchlight Business Book Awards 2019
“How an otherwise unexceptional swath of suburbia came to rule the world is the central question animating “The Code,” Margaret O’Mara’s accessible yet sophisticated chronicle of Silicon Valley. An academic historian blessed with a journalist’s prose, O’Mara focuses less on the actual technology than on the people and policies that ensured its success. . . . O’Mara toggles deftly between character studies and the larger regulatory and political milieu.” —New York Times Book Review
"Condensing this range of stories into a compact narrative isn’t a task for the timid, but Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, has pulled off the feat with panache in The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. She distills voluminous monographs and biographies, newspaper articles and trade-industry publications, unpublished company materials and transcripts that she gleaned from various university archives into a briskly paced narrative. She also enlivens the book with the reflections of dozens of participants who played roles in the Valley early on, obtained through interviews she conducted and from oral histories collected by others. . . . The Code is a wise chronicle of the accretion and deployment of power and is especially sharp in tracking the Valley’s evolving relationship to Washington, D.C. By taking the long view, Ms. O’Mara provides us with the ability to see the roots of contemporary problems created by Silicon Valley’s rise, such as for-profit companies compiling vast digital storehouses of personal information or freedom in the internet era being used to spread hatred and disinformation." —The Wall Street Journal
“[A] fresh, provocative take that upends the self-serving mythologizing of the valley’s own. . . . O’Mara spotlights the village of institutions, networks and ancillary services — corps of bankers, lawyers and marketers overlooked in many accounts of the valley’s exceptionalism — behind the big moments.” —San Francisco Chronicle
"O’Mara embeds Silicon Valley in the sweep of American political history . . . The Code’s great strength is that it captures the various meanings projected onto Silicon Valley . . . What comes through most powerfully in her narrative are the wild social hopes once projected on to computers." —New Republic
“In her wide-ranging history of Silicon Valley, Margaret O’Mara gets behind the myth of geniuses in garages and uncovers the true origin story. O’Mara . . . brings sophistication and nuance to her narrative, covering not only the engineer-dominated culture of building products, but also the absence of attention to their implications for the world.” —The National Book Review
“Puts a gloriously human face on the history of computing in the U.S. . . . extraordinarily comprehensive . . . a must-read for anyone interested in how a one-horse town birthed a revolution that has shifted the course of modern civilization.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“In a field crowded with accounts of how the tech industry has developed, this work places the story of our techno-human transformation within a thoughtful Darwinian context. A necessary addition to both public and academic library collections, it will become a reference for how technology has influenced America.” —Library Journal
“Entertaining and nuanced history . . . Concerned technology users—which pretty much sums up all of us—will find much of interest here.” —Booklist, starred review
"[I]lluminating history . . . A well-researched book students of technological history and the emergence of the digital economy will want to know." —Kirkus Reviews
"The Code will rightfully take its place as the definitive single-volume account of how tech got to be Tech, from its infancy in the fruit orchards of Northern California to the present-day juggernaut that is Silicon Valley. O'Mara captures the stories of transformational founders and leaders, technical breakthroughs, and organizational innovations over the past half century as no one has before." —Mitch Kapor, Kapor Capital
“From Fred Terman to Mark Zuckerberg, The Code provides a panoramic account of the people who, over the past half century, transformed northern California and the US west into a 21st century mecca. O'Mara artfully narrates the complex interactions between public and private sectors, old and new economies, and individual and collective resources that underlie the region's technological dynamism.” —AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at University of California, Berkeley
“For more than half a century, Silicon Valley has been the most consistently innovative region in the world. In this panoramic history, Margaret O’Mara delivers the full portrait: from the engineers in their pressed shirtsleeves to the communalists of the Homebrew Computer Club, from the Valley’s free-market mythos to its canny political lobbying.” —Sebastian Mallaby, author of More Money Than God
“The Code unlocks the secrets of Silicon Valley's success, but it does much more. With the deftness of a novelist and the care of a scholar, Margaret O'Mara guides readers 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 deserve to be famous, to an industry that both inspires and horrifies. This is a vital, important book.” —Ken Auletta, author of Googled and Frenemies
“Silicon Valley’s long and complicated relationship with the US government has gone largely unchronicled. Until now – in The Code Margaret O’Mara opens a significant new window into that history. She has captured a portrait of an industry that has until now largely operated outside of the public eye. The Code reveals that Valley is both more of a creature of its partnership with government and an increasingly powerful influence upon it. The Code is an important addition to the literature that seeks to understand Silicon Valley and its impact on the entire world.” —John Markoff, author of What the Dormouse Said
“A definitive chronicle of how one small group of people, in one particular place, changed everything for the rest of us. Margaret O’Mara tells the story with just the right level of detail, allowing you to form your own opinion as to whether the fire was an accident or deliberately set.”—George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral
“O’Mara’s sweeping, fast-paced account puts Silicon Valley at the center of twentieth-century American history, right where it belongs. If you’re wondering how the Valley became what it is today, this is the book to read.” —Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture
Thoughtful history of the Bay Area enclave that has remade the world in the years since World War II ended.
As O'Mara (History/Univ. of Washington; Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections That Shaped the Twentieth Century, 2015, etc.) writes, Silicon Valley has long been held as a place of the singular American virtues of bootstrapping and lone-genius entrepreneurship, a place of garages where big things happen, as when David Packard built his first gizmos after graduating from Stanford in the late 1930s. There's some truth to that view, but the larger reality is that Silicon Valley was the product of massive federal investment throughout the Cold War, when thinkers such as Vannevar Bush urged that the federal coffers be put to work funding big science—including the computer revolution. As a result, writes the author, "the U.S. government got into the electronics business and became the Valley's first, and perhaps its greatest, venture capitalist." Even such famously government-averse entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs benefited from federal largess: If Apple didn't sell its products to the Pentagon in quite the numbers that Microsoft did, it made plenty on the federally supported educational front. Along the course of her illuminating history, O'Mara, who worked in the Bill Clinton White House in the early days of the internet, describes the emergence of civilian venture capitalists—but even they, exemplified by Georges F. Doriot, known as "the General," worked plenty of government connections. Though much work was done by antinomians and countercultural types in the first days of the personal computer revolution, it was usually within a carefully constructed and controlled setting. Hippies they may have been, but "the fact that Northern California had been such a hub of Cold War science was why many of them were there in the first place." Today, of course, the military-industrial complex thrives even though Silicon Valley has helped change the culture of the Pentagon in the bargain "to get government bureaucracies to behave like start-ups."
A well-researched book students of technological history and the emergence of the digital economy will want to know.