The Garage Innovation Myth

Complicating Silicon Valley's Creation Story

In a musty garage at 367 Addison Ave., Palo Alto, Calif., in 1938, two chaps — William Hewlett and David Packard — built an audio oscillator, the HP200A. Later, they sold eight of them to Walt Disney Studios to certify the sound systems in theaters that would feature the first major film released in stereophonic sound, “Fantasia.” The results: The birth of Silicon Valley and the creation of an enduring myth about innovation.

Soon, others piled on. Apple. Cisco. Intel. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. They “represent” millionaire inventors and entrepreneurs who made their fortunes not by getting their hands dirty with government assistance, but by rolling up their sleeves, sequestering themselves in their mythic garages, and spinning brilliant products that would change the modern world.

But here’s the problem: none of it is really true.

As Argonne National Laboratory director Eric Isaacs remarked in in May, “As Americans, we tend to embrace the notion that a brilliant inventor doesn’t need much more than a garage, a sturdy workbench, and a dream…our inventor-heroes have been popularly viewed as single-combat warriors working feverishly in a basement or some other threadbare den of solitude.”

The reality, of course, is that even Messrs. Hewlett and Packard benefited from critical assistance via the federal science enterprise in garnering their vast technological fortune. “It’s certainly true that Hewlett and Packard began building their first commercial audio oscillators inside that historic garage. But the prototype of those oscillators was built in the laboratory of Stanford University electrical engineering professor Frederick Terman,” Isaacs wrote. “And Packard later wrote that many of those early devices were built using technical equipment at an engineering lab owned by a friend, an engineer and entrepreneur named Charles Litton. So while that Palo Alto garage may be a legendary landmark for the IT industry, Hewlett-Packard would not have been possible without its founders’ access to state-of-the-art engineering labs.”

But what’s the harm of a little mythology to inspire people to shoot for the stars?

Business professors Pino Audia and Christopher Rider wrote that the so-called “garage belief” is “a symbol that conjures up some common images of entrepreneurship, including the inspirational generation of innovative ideas, old-fashioned hard work and American ingenuity, bootstrapping resources to chase a dream, a rejection of the status quo and the freedom of working for oneself.”

Not only is the “garage belief” inaccurate, but it does a colossal disservice to the critical role the federal government plays in launching new ideas, technologies and innovations that help our economy thrive.

Dr. Isaacs writes, “These romanticized versions of technological history aren’t just inaccurate. They threaten to undermine public support for the scientific infrastructure that is necessary to fuel American innovation and assure global economic competitiveness in the decades to come.” That scientific infrastructure so critical to the evolution of technological history is now principally fueled by federally funded scientific research. There is no longer a Xerox PARC or a Bell Labs. Corporate research budgets have shrunk dramatically, and corporations cannot afford to invest in innovations that may take 10 to 15 years to reach fruition, if ever. The federal scientific research enterprise is, therefore, critical as the incubator of new ideas, flights of scientific fancy, and the “seed corn” of the next big thing.

And that brings us back to the garage myth.

At a time when federally funded science is being threatened with the axe of the sequester, when many view science as just another special interest, or worse, an element of “big government” to be starved and excised, the fiction perpetuated by the mythical “garage” compounds the damage.

It gives painfully short shrift to the critical role the federal government plays in helping our nation’s scientists give birth to discoveries that could change our lives. What’s worse: It could result in our country becoming a technological also-ran in the increasingly competitive global economy.

Jodi Lieberman is Senior Government Relations Specialist for the American Physical Society. This was originally published at the APS blog.

Photo credits: On left--Lawrence Berkeley lab. On right--Hewlett-Packard garage by Flickr user raneko.