California Triangulation: Science, Religion, Industry, and the Birth of the Research Park


Last April HBO launched one of its newest series, the Mike Judge-produced “Silicon Valley,” documenting the “wacky” experiences of workers in Northern California’s famed tech center. This, and movies like 1999’s “The Pirates of Silicon Valley,” are simply two examples of how Hollywood has mined the research area for humor and pathos.

Originally established in the 1950s as Stanford Industrial Park (SIP), the area cast a long post-WWII shadow over the fusion of science, industry, academia, and government. “In an age when governments, businesses, and universities all sought to encourage science-based research and development, people from around the world recognized Stanford’s industrial park as exemplary in facilitating technological innovation,” noted historian John Findlay. 1Silicon Valley became synonymous with technological innovation, such that newer rising areas like Los Angeles’ Westside — Santa Monica and Venice where Snapchat, Google, and others have set up offices — have been dubbed Silicon Beach, or in case of late 1990s New York’s where tech businesses flourished in Manhattan, Silicon Alley.

While undoubtedly influential and important, Silicon Valley’s rise rests heavily on its Southern California predecessor — Caltech. Even today, this history remains obscured. A March 2014 Los Angeles Times article on the division between Silicon Beach and the more conservative Pasadena tech center framed the exploits of each as very recent trends. “Historically, Pasadena had been the main hub of tech activity in the Southland,” journalist Andrea Chang pointed out, “sprouting companies such as Overture, Citysearch, EarthLink, Cogent Systems, Picasa, and eHarmony. Tech incubator Idealab, founded by Bill Gross in 1996, was developing start-ups long before Snapchat’s founders were even out of elementary school.”

While certainly true, Pasadena, and more specifically Caltech, go much further back and helped to shape the merger of industry, science, and government that Silicon Valley and others now epitomize and promote. Yet it did so within an early twentieth century Los Angeles, interacting with white Midwestern newcomers, evangelical Christians, occult practitioners, and emerging science fiction writers. If one searched for a noir Silicon Valley, he or she could do no better than Caltech and Pasadena.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the upper Arroyo Seco and San Gabriel Mountains foothills | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the upper Arroyo Seco and San Gabriel Mountains foothills | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Beginning

In 1903, an intrepid University of Chicago faculty member by the name of George Ellery Hale spent the spring of that year exploring the hills above Pasadena, known as Mount Wilson. Hale, an MIT graduate and expert in astronomy, had thought of California as a future location for his scientific endeavors, and so in 1890 he traveled to Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, in Santa Clara county. Hale’s 1890 sojourn sparked an interest that he would carry with him to 1903. Securing the location on Mount Wilson, Hale employed the famed Pasadena architect Myron Hunt to design the new observatory, with money from the then recently-established Carnegie Institution headquartered in Washington D.C. The observatory’s first lens measured 60 inches, a gift from renowned Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham. The second, a 100 inch lens cast in France and financed by Los Angeles businessman John Hooker, took nine years to polish. Though completed in 1908, the necessary polishing and design alterations took nearly a decade to complete. When finally finished, the observatory and its unprecedented 100 inch lens increased the observable universe by 300 percent. 2

With his new telescope on the horizon, in 1907 Hale began work on transforming the plodding local Throop Polytechnic Institute into an elite institution of scientific research. Established in 1891 by Chicago businessman Amos Throop, the institute had failed to achieve any real status within the nation’s scientific community; Hale believed he could change this. Hale more or less booted the five hundred students attending the institution, and reopened the school in the fall of 1910 with only 31 pupils. Renamed the California Institute of Technology in 1920, the school boasted a murderer’s row of scientific talent, among them future Nobel Prize winner and former University of Chicago Professor Robert Millikan and famed chemist Arthur Noyes. Along with Hale, these men would form an intellectual triumvirate, leading Southern California and Caltech to heights of technological and scientific innovation. 3

Undoubtedly impressive, the means by which Caltech expanded and financed its forays into physics and aeronautics proved equally influential, as did the idea of creating intellectual synergy with surrounding research facilities. Hale, as Mike Davis notes in “City of Quartz,” “envisioned a vast scientific cultural triangle around the Observatory … the Institute, and the Huntington Library (whose creation he also influenced).” 4 How might one go about achieving such synergy? Hale called upon his experience working for the National Research Council (NRC), which convened in 1917 to help America’s WWI mobilization effort. The NRC served as the seed for what would become the nation’s indomitable military industrial complex. Leaders of science-based corporations, like G.E. and AT&T, elite physical scientists, and the military’s leading engineers came together to organize the war effort. Hale wanted to replicate the NRC model around Caltech, and in the process divined one of California’s leading industries of the 20th century: aerospace. “Caltech,” asserts Davis, “together with the Department of Defense, substantially invented Southern California’s postwar science based economy.” 5

Of course, municipal leaders across the state saw dollar signs and economic development through the military. As Roger Lotchin documented in his 1992 work, “Fortress California, 1910-1961,” mayors and elected leaders in San Francisco, L.A., and San Diego pursued military investment with fervor. Though we often think of the Golden State as a vista of wilderness, surf, and urban nightlife, the military has long stood at the heart of its development. “California was already disproportionately urban, its southern sector was rapidly outpacing its northern counterpart, and its suburbs were everywhere mushrooming,” Lotchin reflected. “The military occupation of the largest state on the Pacific Slope did not alter these fundamental relationships.” 6 In this way, Hale adjusted to the prevailing economic and political winds of the day.

Palomar telescopes 200-inch lens waiting to be ground at the Caltech Optics Lab | Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Palomar telescopes 200-inch lens waiting to be ground at the Caltech Optics Lab | Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Far from Egalitarian

Hale and Millikan fervently promoted Caltech’s relationship to business and the military. They convinced Southern California Edison to build them a high voltage laboratory for atomic physics experimentation, and persuaded Edison director Henry M. Robinson to help them recruit over sixty local millionaires into the California Institute Association. Hale and Millikan believed it best to be aligned with “aristocracy and patronage,” thereby protected from “meddling congressman and other representatives of the people.” 7 Needless to say, the two men did not have an egalitarian vision for their pursuits. While the nation plunged into depression, Millikan espoused America’s virtues, seeing in breadlines advancement and not economic demise: “The common man … is vastly better off here today in depressed America,” he said, “than he has ever been at any other epoch in society.” 8

Still, the Great Depression even affected Caltech. Though dismissive of the federal government — Millikan once referred to New Dealers as “political royalists” and accused FDR of “Tammanyizing the United States” — the 1930s forced Caltech to turn to the state. Military research, Millikan and other school leaders agreed, aligned neatly with science and industry. WWII brought over $80 million to the school. Nowhere else in the United States did ideas and money flow so freely between corporations, laboratories, and classrooms. Caltech came to be the hub from which public-private research facilities spun out, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Hughes Aircraft, the Air Force’s Space Technology Laboratory, Aerojet General, and the Rand Institute to name only a few. 9

Millikan especially pushed the idea of California exclusiveness and Los Angeles as Caucasian paradise. During luncheon speaking engagements at the California Club in Downtown L.A., and banquets populated by Associates at the Huntington mansion, Millikan hawked Southern California’s place at the frontier of science, notably the synergy between industry and academia; but more distressingly, he played to his audiences’ problematic racial ideas. For Millikan and his listeners, Southern California existed as England did “two hundred years ago, the westernmost outpost of Nordic civilization.” The region’s ever-increasing numbers of “Anglo Saxons” outnumbered their counterparts in polyglot cities like New York or Chicago, a sure sign of superiority in the scientist’s esteem. Indeed, the former University of Chicago professor sought to reproduce “Aryan supremacy on the shores of the Pacific,” notes Davis. 10

Dr. Robert A. Millikan, President of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, ca. 1930 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Dr. Robert A. Millikan, President of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, ca. 1930 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Religious Fervor SoCal Style

“This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or Jew,” wrote Joan Didion in 1966. “This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.” 11 Though Didion was talking about San Bernardino Valley in the mid-1960s, early 20th century Los Angeles too dabbled in a certain Christian fundamentalism, even if one would be more likely to interact with Jews and Catholics in the Protestant “White Spot” of the West Coast than mid-century San Bernadino. Caltech leaders, dedicated to the kind of books Didion suggested remained absent from Southern California, understood the evangelical religiosity of many of their fellow Angelenos.

As new arrivals carried this religious fervor with them from states like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana, Caltech, points out Davis, “scraped against the local bedrock of Midwestern fundamentalism.” The Bryan Bible League of California, at the peak of Scopes Monkey Trial hysteria, sought to make the King James Bible a part of public school curriculum. Aimee Semple McPherson battled the devil in a never ending metaphysical war with her Pasadena congregation as witnesses. Millikan felt compelled to convince these Angelenos that no contradiction existed between science and the Almighty. Across the nation in personal appearances, radio broadcasts, and a book tour, he told the public he was a “Christian scientist” who recognized Jesus, St. Nick, and the electron simultaneously. One skeptical observer, Morrow Mayo, denounced Millikan’s efforts as “a conglomeration of metaphysical aphorisms and theological sophistry, suffused in a weird and ghostly atmosphere of obscurantism, with occasional and literal references to Santa Claus.” 12

Then again, if Millikan and Caltech worried about rubbing L.A.’s evangelicals the wrong way, it unwittingly inspired others to new metaphysical heights. “Science is the first assistant Messiah inspiring many a sect,” Farnsworth Crowder reflected. “What psychology will not supply can be lifted from the physical sciences. Einstein, Michaelson, Millikan and company are unwitting contributors.” The Rosicrucians, Theosophists, Church of Psychic Science, and the Metaphysical Science Association, among others, embraced the dual rise of metaphysics, quantum mechanics, and psychoanalysis. These groups filled in the gaps that an “alternative science fiction milieu of the 1940s” would later address, thereby mediating between science and theology.

During the late 1930s, John Whiteside (commonly Jack) Parsons, a leader in Caltech rocketry science and eventual founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developed a relationship with and power over the Pasadena occult branch of the Ordo Templie Orientis (OTO) (referred to locally as the Agape Lodge), an organization of “magicians (and spies)” following the teachings of England’s Aleister Crowley. During daylight hours under the bright SoCal sun, Parsons conducted research in Caltech labs or at the Devil’s Gate test range, while at night he returned to his Pasadena mansion where he engaged in various “blasphemous rituals” directed by the scandalous, overseas Crowley. 13

Parsons continued in this manner until 1945 when he bumped into a young Naval officer who shared his fascination with science fiction and metaphysics. Lt. Commander L. Ron Hubbard, a recognized science fiction pulp writer at the time, charmed Parsons, who incorporated Hubbard into his occult as both guest and sorcerer’s apprentice. Hubbard drank from the spectacle of ritual — “the occult dramaturgy and incantatory skills” so prevalent in Parson’s religious practice — eventually deploying them in the performative aspects of what would become Scientology. In the end, Hubbard repaid Parsons for his mentorship by sleeping with the scientist’s mistress, setting off a complex chain of events that eventually resulted in Parson’s demise when he blew up his mansion in 1952. 14 Hubbard went on to controversial international fame, and Scientology persists to this day.

Rocket engine experimenters take a break. Rudolph Schott, Apollo Milton Olin Smith, Frank Malina (white shirt, dark pants), Ed Forman and Jack Parsons (right, foreground). Nov. 15, 1936 | Photo: JPL/NASA
Rocket engine experimenters take a break. Rudolph Schott, Apollo Milton Olin Smith, Frank Malina (white shirt, dark pants), Ed Forman and Jack Parsons (right, foreground). Nov. 15, 1936 | Photo: JPL/NASA

The Legacy

Undoubtedly, the circumstances of Caltech’s rise remain unique to Los Angeles and the time period, but clearly the merging of science, industry, and government, along with the idea of research parks, often labeled “research triangles,” pulsated through American 20th century history. While the planners behind SIP, or even North Carolina’s research triumvirate — the agglomeration of Duke, UNC, and N.C. State’s scientists and facilities — never endorsed the kind of racialized spectre of an Aryan Pacific Coast like Millikan, their efforts did have demographic effects.

In Silicon Valley, metropolitan development resulted in class divisions as production workers in tech industries — more often women and minorities making less money than their white collar counterparts — lived further and further from employment, finding themselves “driving to and from their jobs over long distances in formidable congestion.” Pollution too emerged as a problem. By 1987, Santa Clara county led all counties across the nation in toxic waste, as nineteen superfund sites called the region home. 15 More recently the influx of wealth from Silicon Valley into nearby San Francisco has caused no small amount of anger and class-based friction. Even Dom from HBO’s “Looking” series denounced the tech newcomers in an early episode. “I hated them in the ’90s and I hate them now,” to paraphrase the fictional wannabe entrepreneur.

North Carolina officials might have muted racial concerns, but openly advertised that their planned research triangle would attract middle and upper class workers, eschewing the blue collar labor of industry. The planners of Research Triangle Park (RTP) consciously modeled their own high-tech enclave on SIP, launching an effort to recruit high-tech companies to the Raleigh-Durham area in 1955, and even poaching Stanford’s George Herbert to head up their fledgling research park. “Boosters in North Carolina saw that states like California and Texas were scooping up federal research contracts, especially at the height of the Cold War,” says Alex Sayf Cummings, a Georgia State history professor who is writing a book on the Triangle. Southerners not only wanted the federal money; they wanted the tax revenues and spending power of the well-paid scientists that came along with it. “North Carolinians sought to portray their mostly low-wage, low-skill state as a haven for educated professionals,” Cummings says, “and their promotional literature was overwhelmingly focused on catering to the interests of upper middle-class white men, who seemed to embody the image of a ‘scientist’ at the time.”

Boosters may have succeeded in cultivating scientific industry in Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle since the 1950s, but their vision of a lilywhite future was not to be. Indeed, considering the large presence of East Asian and South Asians within the scientific workforce, the arguably two most famous American research parks of the early 21st century retain racial and ethnic diversity that would have horrified Millikan.

As documented by Chang, currently Pasadena hopes to reassert its position in tech conversations of the moment. However, its history and influence reaches farther back than 1990s start-ups. While today it might struggle to gain the kind of attention that its Westside neighbor, Northern California competitor, or southern East Coast counterpart enjoy, it played a key role in the development of each, and did so in the most Southern California of ways.


1 John Findlay, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992, pg. 118.
2 Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2005) pgs. 258-259
3 Ibid.
4 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (New York: Verso, 1990) pg. 55.
5 Ibid. pgs. 55-56.
6 Roger Lotchin, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare, (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002) pg. 54.
7 Mike Davis, City of Quartz, pg. 56.
8 Ibid., pg 57.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., pgs. 56-57,
11 Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968) pg. 4.
12 Mike Davis, City of Quartz, pgs. 57-58.
13 Ibid., pg. 59.
14 Ibid., pg. 60.
15 John Findlay, Magic Lands, pgs. 155 – 157.

This article originally appeared in the Intersections column at KCET Departures in April 2014