The History of Silicon Valley and the Toxic Remnants of the First Computers 

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

Today, Silicon Valley is a dreamy landscape of glass-laden offices, a place where ideas and networks are currency. But in the 1960s and '70s, Silicon Valley manufactured hardware – and this industrial boom created one of the most polluted places in America.

Journalists have written about the techutopia's side effects too. In 2001, writing in Salon, Jim Fisher investigated toxic soil and high rates of cancer among workers at IBM. In 2013, Alexis Madrigal published a wonderful essay about the region’s oft-forgotten history: “It has as much in common with a coal mine or the Port of Oakland as it does with Levittown or Google’s campus,” he wrote.

For a region of the world where an incredible amount of capital is spent to develop real estate, this aspect of Silicon Valley’s history remains surprisingly unknown to many people outside the region. So, we thought it’s worth looking at the hidden history of California’s high-tech corner.

The Chip-Washers

This week, a semiconductor maker based in Phoenix bought another semiconductor maker called Fairchild for a few billion dollars. It might not be a familiar name like Apple, but Fairchild, along with several other small startups, pioneered the technology that powers all of our electronics–all the way back in the 1950s.

The silicon chip manufacturing technology developed at these companies turned a quiet agricultural region of Northern California into the industrial manufacturing centre better known as Silicon Valley. In a BBC documentary about the brilliant integrated circuit inventor and Fairchild co-founder Robert Noyce, the writer Michael Malone called Fairchild “the most amazing gathering of entrepreneurial talent in business history”.

It was a fascinating time to be an inventor or engineer. For example, the process of making the earliest silicon computer chips reads like modern-day alchemy to anyone without a working knowledge of chemistry, even today.

It started with an ingot of super-pure silicon, created by pulling a “seed crystal” through a vat of molten silicon until it formed a thick, multi-layered “ingot,” like the one seen in a Fairchild promotional video from 1967 above, or the one in a Raytheon lab below.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley and the Toxic Remnants of the First Computers Growing a silicon ingot at Raytheon in 1956. Wikimedia.

The sausage-shaped ingots were then shaved into thin wafers, and polished using a number of chemicals. After that came the process of printing transistors into the chips–which required degreasers and solvents, including the sweet-smelling trichloroethylene (TCE), which was only classified as a carcinogen by the US environment protection agency (EPA) in 2005 and would later be found in groundwater around Silicon Valley after leaking from dozens of different manufacturing sites. TCE, which was first made in the US in the 1920s, has been used at various points in history as an engine parts degreaser and as an alternative to chloroform.

Meanwhile, the speed with which chip technology was developing was staggering. In the late 1950s, Fairchild developed the first integrated circuit – a silicon chip where all of the components of a circuit could be created on a single wafer of silicon without having to painstakingly piece them together by hand. The process gave birth to modern computer chips, and the “clean rooms” where these sensitive components were built and prepared. Again, chemicals like trichloroethylene were being used, the health affects of which were unknown at the time.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley and the Toxic Remnants of the First Computers 

A silicon wafer is scribed to break it into individual circuits.

Over the next two decades, as Silicon Valley grew, chip technology developed with incredible speed. In 1965, Fairchild co-founder and Intel founder Gordon Moore coined the term Moore’s Law to describe the idea that the number of transistors that could fit on a single circuit will double every two years. Intel would invent the first single-chip CPU, the Intel 4004, in 1971. Dozens of other companies popped up, competing to build the world’s computer chips.

Farmland to Superfund in 30 Years

Yet the incredible industrial processes pioneered in Silicon Valley would have unintended consequences for the region. Chip-makers, including Intel, Raytheon, and Fairchild, ended up leaking thousands of gallons of water contaminated with volatile organic compounds into the soil in Mountain View for two decades through leaky tanks and other infrastructure. And in the 1980s, people found out.

The leaking habit created a toxic groundwater plume that was only discovered after high rates of cancer emerged. “We did not think these tanks would leak,” a spokesman for the company told The New York Times in 1982. The Mayor of San Jose elaborated: “When I first became Mayor and we embarked on an economic development programme, there was no doubt in my mind that this was a clean industry. We now know we are definitely in the midst of a chemical revolution.” The director of the Semiconductor Industry Association at the time said the group was doing whatever it could to help the subsequent investigation: “For God’s sake, we drink the water, too.”

The investigation led to the creation of the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (MEW) Study Area, one of many EPA-funded cleanup sites that sit below the most valuable and active real estate in Silicon Valley, and arguably the one that has received the most attention. It includes Fairchild, Raytheon, Intel, and Moffett Field sites where TCE and other chemicals had leaked into the groundwater, creating a toxic plume that reared its ugly head both through the water and through a process called “vapour intrusion,” where the chemicals circulate through a building’s ventilation system.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley and the Toxic Remnants of the First Computers 

MEW is not the only remediation site in the area. For example, the Android Statue Garden sits over the raod from a Superfund site where the remains of a 1980s chip-making company called CTS Printex, Inc. are being mitigated. In 2013, one thousand Google workers in office buildings near the site were exposed to “excessive” levels of trichloroethene in the air over two months.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley and the Toxic Remnants of the First Computers 

Image: EPA

Meanwhile, another Superfund site sits across the street from 19111 Pruneridge Avenue, the site where Apple is building its new campus: Intersil Inc./Siemens Components, a 15 acre site where the companies manufactured semiconductors in the 1980s. “Twenty-three soil vapour extraction wells have been built, along with a carbon adsorption treatment facility,” the EPA reports. “Groundwater is being extracted, treated by air stripping, and discharged into Calabazas Creek.”

In less than 30 years, this patch of soil had gone from farmland, to the site of a technological revolution, to a massive cluster of Superfund cleanup sites.

How This Waste Winds Up Across the US

The process of cleaning these solvents from the groundwater and soil will take decades or longer, in some cases. But the story of how Silicon Valley is being remediated gets stranger.

In 2014, the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian published an incredible report that tracked the process of removing toxic waste from the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Study Area. The vaporu containing the chip-washing chemical TCE and other toxins goes on a long journey after it’s filtered by pumps above the Superfund sites.

This toxic waste is shipped to dozens of different treatment plants around the country, where it can be treated in several different stages. These journeys aren’t regulated by the EPA. They create massive amounts of new waste, in addition to the contaminated water. The process, which often involves super-heating the waste, creates dangerous dioxins that can travel thousands of miles from their source. They are all around us, and this so-called “toxic trail” might not actually be doing much good:

A CIR analysis of the past decade’s worth of data found that cleanup isn’t improving the situation. There are more than 500 wells at the Mountain View site for which monitoring data exists. At the majority of them, chemical concentrations remained stable or, in a small number of cases, increased.

The CFIR showed that material from the MEW site ends up all over the country. In a strange way, the distribution of the waste in trucks on roads is not unlike the distribution of the radios, phones, and computers that were once produced and distributed here, just a few decades ago.

The incredible technological development that this region gave birth to has its own alternate history; a history that will keep emerging over the coming decades and centuries.

The chemicals and industrial techniques used to push innovation forward simply haven’t been studied enough to understand the possible danger to humans. Writing 14 years ago, Jim Fisher put it best in his Salon piece:

If anything, the experience of the semiconductor industry should be sobering — the complexity of the chemical cocktails at use in modern high-tech industrial manufacturing is mind-boggling, and it is always getting more so. There is little chance, warn these experts, of ever catching up with the public health challenges inherent in new advances in technology, especially when the rate of change continues to accelerate.

It’s a sobering tale that touches on the genuine geniuses that invented modern computers and the unforeseen side effects of the industry that made them. It’s also cautionary: as the rate of technological progress speeds up, it seems nearly impossible to identify the dangers inherent in making those new technologies.