Alex Lightman is like a firefly. When his luminescent light is flitting about you see the light circling and glowing but it’s hard to see the appendages. He moves fast and never stops buzzing.
He often appears at the Saturday METal breakfast in Los Angeles for a brief presentation to this group of business professionals that meet each week. Lightman is a prolific author, entrepreneur and futurist. METal leader Ken Rutkowski winds up Alex and lets him fly on a weekly topic about things we don’t quite see. He sometimes runs out of time before getting to the central nugget, like he did this week, just before he was about to tell us of a billion-dollar market opportunity.
Alex did toss us some words of wisdom, which I managed to catch on my keyboard. Think of it as Lightman in a bottle.
He began with an intellectual teaser. What was the spark that lit Silicon Valley?
To be sure, Silicon Valley would not exist were it not for industrialist Leland Stanford, who moved to the Bay Area in 1852 with a plan to build the “Harvard of the West.” Stanford University opened in 1891. To Alex Lightman, that was not the tipping point.
“It was 1904,” said Lightman, having something to do with the awarding of a U.S. Navy contract, which he did not specify.
“From that you can draw a straight line” to the gradual emergence of the world’s technology capitol, he said. I missed the chance to follow up with Alex to ask what that contract was.
Radio’s Role In Silicon Valley
That evening, burning with curiosity, I went to the Internet to see if I could find out. I found “The History of Silicon Valley” by Piero Scaruffi, to Chapter 1, “The Pioneers (1900-25)”. I searched for this elusive contract and found nothing specific, but I did find clues.
It was a period of intense research in the field of radio communication. San Francisco, being a big Navy port, was very involved with establishing radio towers and protocol to communicate with localities and ships at sea.
In 1909, Stanford alumnus Cyril Elwell had founded the Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company in Palo Alto. In 1912 it won a contract by the Navy. This start-up company was funded by Stanford’s own president, David Starr Jordan.
“The Bay Area had stumbled into electronics almost by accident,” Scaruffi writes, “And Jordan had just inaugurated venture-capital investment in the region.”
It’s likely that Lightman was referring to some earlier Navy contract, or maybe he got the date wrong. But it’s clear that the U.S. Navy’s investments in radio technology was a spark that ignited the area’s interest in technology.
Of course, Alex was just winding up to pitch a point. It was the investment of federal dollars in technology that led the way. He pointed to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology, formed in 1961 by President Kennedy to help fuel space exploration.
“This office is run by geniuses,” said Lightman. “It‘s the smartest part of the federal government,” with a budget that dwarfs the venture capital industry.
Hardware vs. Software
An underlying theme to all this is that “our strengths are in building complex objects,” said Lightman. It is the creation of complex hardware, not software, that keeps the technology candle burning bright. He made this same point at a previous METal breakfast, essentially pissing on the time developers spend creating software-based businesses like Facebook and other social networks, and games.
Instead, Lightman insists, we should focus on supporting complex hardware companies like Cisco.
And it was here on Saturday that the amazing mind of Alex began to delve deeper into obscure analogies.
“Hardware is like ice,” he said. “When ice melts it turns to water, which is software. Water then evaporates, and this is what service companies are made of.”
“It is much easier to control ice than water or evaporated air,” said Lightman.
Inventing complex physical objects enables the founders to then create the standards for that technology, which enables them to stay ahead of foreign competitors. Steve Jobs figured this out, said Lightman. Apple starts out with new and novel physical objects, like the iPod, iPhone and iPad. After that comes the software.
So, go out and build a better mousetrap. After that someone will build an app that tells us at which hours of the day one will catch the most mice and what they prefer to nibble on.
–Other notes from METal breakfast–
The featured presenter on Saturday was a trio of executives from Syyn Labs, “formed in 2008 by a group of creative engineers who twist together art and technology.”
On hand was Adam Sadowsky, president and CEO. With him was entrepreneur, engineer and co-founder Brent Bushnell, and Eric Gradman, a robotics specialist, musician and circus performer.
Syyn Labs, here in Los Angeles, consists of an eclectic and creative group of talent. It is best known for the project with indie rock band OK Go and its video “This Too Shall Pass,” now viewed more than 26 million times on YouTube. Syyn Labs put together the extremely amazing Rubik’s Cube project that was used in this highly entertaining video. They did something similar for the “Google Science Fair Experiment.”
Another project they worked on was the DieHard battery commercial starring Gary Numan, who plays his hit song “Cars” on a sequence of 24 cars with horns tuned by Syyn Labs, which took the team days and nights in the Mojave desert to set up.
Another project was the “DNA Sequencer” built for the annual Santa Monica Glow event.
“We do great art and creative things for clients,” said Sadowsky. “If you have brand you want to promote, hire us.”
I also want to thank Cooper Bates for contributing these METal photographs. Cooper is a great photographer. Do look him up for services.
Thanks for reading.
Strength & honor,