What Happened to Innovation?

PHOTO The Sunnyvale Museum in Sunnyvale, California is shown.

Where has innovation gone?

I had an odd moment earlier this week. For many years now, I've been involved in the creation of a historical museum in my hometown, Sunnyvale, Calif. In fact, you can say that I've been part of this project since I was 12 years old, when, in researching a Boy Scout merit badge, I happened to leave some library books lying around … and my father read them.

That set my old man on a quarter-century quest to build Sunnyvale a new museum, which continued after his death -- with my mother as one of the lead benefactors -- until last fall. That's when, to great ceremony, the new Sunnyvale Historical Museum -- built as a replica of the city's (and essentially, California's) first American home -- finally opened. It was quite a day, not least because of the unforgettable sight of my youngest son escorting his 87-year-old grandmother into the exhibit room named after her and his grandfather.

Like most community museums, the Sunnyvale museum struggled to the financial finish line. As a result, the museum task force had to make some tough decisions about exhibits. It chose, wisely, to fill the first floor with exhibits from the early Indian/Mission/Orchards era of the city (and Santa Clara Valley) and leave the second floor -- to be dedicated to modern Sunnyvale as the heart of Silicon Valley -- empty until enough money could be found.

Helping to create the first exhibit on the second floor was what brought me to the museum this week. The goal is to create a massive timeline of the history of the electronics revolution that will cover one 30-foot-long wall with key milestones in everything from semiconductor chips to avionics to software -- noting the many inventions (such as the microprocessor, the video game and the Apple computer) that had roots in Sunnyvale.

The two Silicon Valley "experts" on the task force are myself and Regis McKenna, the valley's most famous marketing and PR guru (think Intel and Apple). McKenna, who is now retired, is a generation older than me and someone I've always considered -- I've known him as a neighbor since I was a teenager -- to be fount of wisdom and advice, especially about the sociology of high tech. As you can imagine, from the guy who introduced both the Intel 8080 and the Macintosh, McKenna has a lot of experiences to share.

The Lopsided Timeline

It was my job to design the timeline and populate it with the 100 or so major milestones of the electronics/digital revolution, from the programmable jacquard looms of the late 18th century to the iPhone. And as I laid out the grid and began to populate it with items, my biggest concern was that the ancient end of the timeline would be so empty and the modern end so stuffed with events that the layout would look distorted and visually unbalanced.

And indeed, one part of the chart did look stuffed with milestone inventions. It wasn't in the present, but rather, during the era from about 1967 to 1977 -- containing the microprocessor, the Internet, calculators, video games, the personal computer, the cellular phone, etc. The fact that history seemed to be building up to that era -- especially technology's "annus mirabilus" of 1969 -- came as no surprise. What did surprise me was how in the years after that, right up to the present, the efflorescence of innovation seemed to fade.

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