Ruth Peiser, radio operator

The Wireless Age: Electronics Entrepreneurs Before Silicon Valley exhibit at History Park

Above: San Francisco’s Ruth Peiser W60K, among the first women to operate her own radio station, c. 1930 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

Arbuckle Gallery at History Park, San Jose, September 2015-July 2016

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Everyone is familiar with the local garage stories of Wozniak and Jobs, Hewlett and Packard, and the big semiconductor pioneers — Noyce, Fairchild and Shockley — that gave today’s Silicon Valley its name. It is the earlier electronics pioneers of the Bay Area, however, who produced some of the most revolutionary communication devices, laying the foundation for what is today’s high-tech corridor.

The individuals responsible for the early growth of communications technology in the San Francisco Bay Area were young engineers and inventors who had something original to contribute to electronics. Even after initial success, they could still be found in their shops and laboratories working side by side with their technicians; often they served as their own salespeople and business managers. Their satisfaction came from doing something new, something that was their own, and from doing it their own way. They brought us wireless communication, aeronautical radio, broadcast radio and television, sound recording, surveillance equipment, and even an analog computer.

Through the Perham Collection’s rare artifacts, extensive photographs, personal papers and corporate ephemera, visitors will be re-introduced to a selection of entrepreneurs who existed in a time when inventing was still an individual, and passionate, pursuit: Lee de Forest, Cyril Elwell, Charles Litton, Ralph Heinz, Jo Jennings, Philo Farnsworth, Alexander Poniatoff, Charles Herrold, and Leo Jones, as well as the more familiar Varian brothers, William Hewlett, and David Packard. Often starting with little money but a wealth of curiosity, imagination and courage, they worked out of converted garages, basement laboratories, and even a chicken coop.

Visitors will be introduced to the Bay Area’s first female radio operators and radio broadcasters — on land and at sea — as well as the women and men along the production lines. Also explored are efforts to diversify broadcasting production ranks as well as content, to serve wider and more specialized audiences.

Previously housed at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, the Perham Collection of Early Electronics is the legacy of radio pioneer Douglas McDonald Perham (1887-1967). A talented technician, Perham was also a life-long collector. Perham’s collection parallels his career, spanning the first 50 years of commercial electronics in the West — from his early work at Palo Alto’s Federal Telegraph Company to his retirement from Varian Associates in 1953.

Guest Curators
Bjorn Forsberg — Community Guest Curator, formerly TRW, Ford Aerospace and Loral Space Systems
Stuart Hansen — Community Guest Curator, formerly Varian, Hewlett-Packard and Agilent
Will Jensby — Community Guest Curator, formerly Lockheed Martin and Foothill Electronics Museum
Roxanne Nilan, PhD — Community Guest Curator
Ralph Simpson – Community Guest Curator, formerly Cisco and IBM

Thank you to our sponsors

Robert J. Bettencourt


Eric Wenaas

About Clyde Arbuckle
Clyde Arbuckle was instrumental in preserving San José’s history by collecting historic materials, and founding the San José Historical Museum, which later became History San José. Find out more about Arbuckle’s contributions to local history and his legacy at History San José.

About the Pacific Hotel
The Pacific Hotel was originally located at 74-80 South Market Street in downtown San José, near the Plaza de César Chavez. The first hotel at this location was founded in 1860, but the Pacific Hotel itself was not opened until 1880. Charles Schiele, a Prussian immigrant and former waiter, purchased the property, then known as Otter’s Hotel, and was the first owner of the Pacific Hotel. Schiele remained in charge for seven years, until he sold the hotel to Julius Neifing and Jacob Schlenker and was elected to the San José City Council. Schlenker owned the hotel with different business partners until 1903, when he sold it to George Pfeffer. The Pacific Hotel remained in business until July 1907, when the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company bought the building. Read more.