'Triumph of the Nerds' takes a look at the success stories of Silicon Valley

By Bob Thomas
Associated Press
Chicago Sun-Times

June 9, 1996

Los Angeles -- Its title is "Triumph of the Nerds," and what a triumph it is.

The full name of the three-hour PBS documentary is "Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires in Silicon Valley," and its stars are Bill Gates, Steven Jobs and other multimillionaire or billionaire travelers on the information superhighway.

Valley historian Bob Cringely, who wrote and hosted the show, which airs Wednesday, maintains a whimsical attitude toward the big-money events, as demonstrated by titles of each hour segment.

The first hour, "Impressing Their Friends," is a flashback to the mid-1970s, when a bunch of computer drudges "with limited social skills" began creating a new industry, at least partly to win acceptance from their contemporaries. The show premieres from 8 to 11 p.m. Wednesday on WTTW-Channel 11

"Riding the Bear" heralds the arrival of the PC era in the 1980s, with the big-business pressures that drove some of the pioneers to other fields of endeavor. It includes closeups of Jobs, cofounder of Apple, and Gates, the Microsoft mogul.

Finally, "Great Artists Steal" brings the PC revolution to the present and speculates on future changes that could create a whole new breed of computer nerds.

Cringely, who lives in Burlingame, not far from the computer industry's Silicon Valley home in the suburbs between San Francisco and San Jose, has the credentials for this long-range view of computer history. He started in the business in 1977, two years after its founding. After working overseas, he had enrolled at Stanford University in a Ph.D. program.

"I discovered that it was an expensive place to live, and I needed to earn money," he recalled. "I began doing work for computer companies that were starting up. I was the 12th employee at Apple."

Cringely wrote software, helped devise marketing campaigns and performed other duties for several companies, noting "Everybody did everything in those days."

After earning his degree, he taught for a few years, then became a consultant for the industry and a gossip columnist for Info World trade publication.

"Triumph of the Nerds" is based on his book, Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date.

The PBS show is his first venture into television.

"I hadn't the slightest idea how hard it would be," he said. "It was very hard work. It took us a year to raise the money, then a year to produce the show."

The filmmakers traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., where the first personal computer was invented in 1975.

"Ed Roberts, who built it, is now a doctor in Georgia," Cringely said. "He got out of the industry in 1978 and went to medical school. We visited him at his rural practice.

"We talked to a lot of the guys about what it was like back then when it was enough to have a computer - you didn't really expect it to do anything."

Cringely and company interviewed 97 men and three women. Why the disparity?

"The industry isn't so overwhelmingly male anymore," he said. "This is a historical series, so we're looking back to when it used to be all-boys.

"These guys were hunter-gatherers, and it's not so surprising that the early pioneers were mainly men. One of the great themes of the show is to explain why they did it.

"The first episode, `Impressing Their Friends,' tells the whole point: Nobody wanted to get rich. They just wanted to impress their friends."

Cringely noted that Microsoft was there at the beginning and dominates the industry today. But he considers it "a malevolent force." Naturally, his writings have piqued Bill Gates.

"Yet Bill's interview is excellent," Cringely said of the show. "If you saw him on Letterman, you know that Bill and TV do not sit well together. Because we caught him on the right day or maybe knew the right questions to ask, it came off really well.

"And he didn't let us down. He forgot to wash or comb his hair or clean his glasses or shave. We got the right look."

Microsoft mogul Bill Gates is a star of "Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires in Silicon Valley."; Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Copyright 1996