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Learning about Silicon Valley in the 1970s is ‘like watching the Big Bang,’ historian Leslie Berlin says

Berlin’s new book, “Troublemakers,” tells the stories of seven men and women who made the tech industry what it is today.

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“Troublemakers” author and historian Leslie Berlin
“Troublemakers” author and historian Leslie Berlin
Anne Peterson Barry

With new tech products rolling out every day, it’s all too easy to lose sight of Silicon Valley’s history. But those who do neglect it are missing out on an amazing story, historian Leslie Berlin says.

Berlin’s new book, “Troublemakers,” traces the careers of seven tech pioneers who helped turn the Valley into an economic and cultural powerhouse. On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, she explained why it focuses on the years 1969 to 1983.

“Silicon Valley was this obscure little place, where it was gearhead engineers selling to gearhead engineers who used chips,” Berlin said. “Within not even a dozen years: The video game industry was born; the personal computer industry was born; biotech — which no one talks about — biotech was born, right here; modern venture capital took root, the first Arpanet transmission comes into SRI. It’s like you're watching the Big Bang.”

“It reminds me of The Beatles,” she added. “In 1963, they’re doing Little Richard covers. By 1970, they’ve completely transformed music and the broader culture.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Berlin also talked about her day job as a historian at Stanford University, overseeing the school’s Silicon Valley Archives.

“At Stanford, people see this as part of a story of American history, part of a story of international history,” she said. “It didn’t happen in a vacuum. People think about ‘computer history’ or ‘history of technology’ as something that just sort of showed up. There’s a reason this happened here, there’s a reason it happened when it did, and we’re able to tell that story.”

Berlin’s team of historians frequently finds itself convincing tech companies to hand over their corporate memos, photos, videos and other materials — but sometimes it falls into their laps. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s, he scrapped existing plans for an Apple-run museum of its own historian and shipped 600 boxes of history to Stanford; other companies, however, need more cajoling.

“There’s a big educational process,” Berlin said. “These are places that are completely focused on the future. Very often, what happens is it’s only once an anniversary is on the horizon, they’re like, ‘What happened to all our stuff?’ That’s a good time to talk to them.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, answers the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

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