The Origins of Startup Culture: How the Early Success Stories Shaped the Modern State of the Tech Industry

By: Dmitry Kabanov

In the late 1930s, two Stanford students, William Hewlett and David Packard, were inspired by their professor’s plea to turn the Bay Area into the national capital of high tech. Operating out of the cheapest property they could find — a garage in suburban Palo Alto, they started a company and built their first commercial product, the HP200A oscillator. Now a private museum and a California Historic Landmark, this place is a living monument, commemorating the birth of the Silicon Valley startup culture.

This event preceded the similar and widely publicized success stories of Microsoft and Apple by more than 30 years. But it nonetheless perfectly defines the startup culture as we know it today. How come?

Born of the American Dream

American history is often presented as an exodus myth, a story of taking risks to start anew in the Promised Land. That was the hope of the pilgrims crossing the Atlantic to escape religious persecution, and, later, the settlers of the West risking sure death on the Oregon Trail. These pioneers gave us the American Dream — the belief that in America anyone worth anything can dream big and bear the fruits of their labour.

In the early 20th century this mindset was alive and well. Immigrants were pouring into the country, looking to make the best of their life. The standard of living was rising, despite the economic setbacks suffered on the way.  Such prosperity gave Americans one of the symbols of the middle class, a badge of honour for the hard-working masses — the suburban house. The construction projects of the 1930s weren’t as big as their postwar counterparts, but the image of modern Suburbia was there — if you worked hard, you could afford to have your own house with your own lawn. One of the things that made such low density housing possible was the car. So next to these reasonably priced houses there stood a separate building, the garage.

The garage is one of the greatest symbols of the American dream. It’s the physical manifestation of excess. It’s a sign of having more money than you need, meaning that you can afford a car.  It’s a symbol of having time on your hands, enough to spend it on things other than work. So it didn’t take long before garages, first only used for car maintenance, became full-fledged hobby spaces.

To this day people use them to creatively spend their free time — make art, play music, assemble DIY projects and start businesses. It’s only natural that, like a true grassroots movement, the tech startup culture was born in a garage.

Created by Nerds and Tinkerers

In the first half of the century, electricity was still primarily seen as a natural force. The boundaries of innovation were pushed by the radio, another natural phenomenon we learned to make use of. By extension, most inventions of the period — improvements in long-haul (planes, ocean liners) and short-haul (cars) travel, the birth of photo and video, the electrification of cities — were seen as triumphs of man over nature.

Back then, the tech culture was built around experimenting with nature, which gave it a sense of underlying playfulness. And that playfulness encouraged amateur participation.

Starting in the 19th century, science magazines featured instructions for DIY tech projects. The first magazine completely dedicated to electronics and radio — the Modern Electrics — was a resounding success and had a circulation of 52,000 in 1911. A tech publishing boom followed soon after.