Features & Columns

History of Bars in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley and San Jose boast a rich history of great bars where ideas flowed as fast as the liquor
Fredericksburg Brewery It took a whole lot of employees—and one dog—to maintain Fredericksburg Brewery, located on Cinnabar by The Alameda, circa 1905. Photo courtesy History San Jose

The growth of Silicon Valley, including the birth of the video-game industry, is inseparable from bars and clubs. Some of the most profound innovations that altered the technological landscape of Planet Earth were originally thrashed out or tested in various watering holes of the South Bay.

And as a city itself, San Jose boasts its own liquid legacy, one of painters and politicians.

Forty-two years ago, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney had no idea their crazy ideas would immortalize the Dutch Goose in Menlo Park. At that time, the average computer was bigger than a refrigerator, and Bushnell found inspiration in a certain particular mainframe-based game called Spacewar!

Usually played on a gargantuan DEC PDP-1, the game was ripe for transformation. Enter Bushnell and Dabney, whose collective existence led to a stand-alone version, titled Computer Space. They enclosed a screen inside a homemade cabinet, along with a coin box, and installed a test version at the Dutch Goose in 1971.

Once they started producing more, Computer Space became the first commercially sold, coin-operated video game. It all began at the Dutch Goose, which still exists today.

Pong came next. Bushnell and Dabney founded Atari in 1972 and hired Al Alcorn. The latter was given a test exercise to design what eventually became Pong, which was first installed in Andy Capp's Tavern in Sunnyvale, now Rooster T. Feathers. Those two bars—the Dutch Goose and Andy Capp's—were integral components in helping launch the video-game industry as we know it today.

A decade before that, in the 1960s, a working-class bar called Walker's Wagon Wheel existed on Middlefield Road in Mountain View. It was there that employees of Fairchild Semiconductor, as well as their direct competitors, would get hammered and argue about the future of the electronics industry.

Unlike the East Coast, where companies had gag orders and couldn't disclose what they were working on with their competitors, out here in the Wild West, everyone got drunk and worked out problems common to their industries as a whole. That was the prevailing West Coast style.

People here felt they were all in this together, and it was exactly such a culture of openness and free exchange of ideas that led to the transformation of Northern California into the world capital of technological innovation. Even today, older CEOs and venture capitalists continue to cite Walker's Wagon Wheel as a key meeting place where many ideas were originally discussed over drinks in what was then a giant swath of suburban wasteland America.

The building was eventually destroyed in 2003, but artifacts remain at the Computer History Museum. If anyone questions the importance of bars in the evolution of Silicon Valley, all he or she has to do is visit the Computer History Museum. It's all there.

Historical Highs

San Jose, on the other hand, barely had anything to do with any of this. No one knew it was the "Capital of Silicon Valley" until that phrase appeared on all the garbage cans.

On the good side, however, the town's bar-centric history goes back a few centuries before the growth of Silicon Valley. San Jose was always a working-class, drinking-man's town. Always. Even the historians point this out.

For example, San Jose was the first capital of California, and even though it was only the capital for about a year or so, the importance of drinking was established from day one.

The very first California State Legislature, here in San Jose, became known as the Legislature of a Thousand Drinks. Every one of their sessions in 1850 ended with state Sen. Thomas Jefferson Green declaring: "Let's have a drink! Let's have a thousand drinks!" After which the entire legislature would migrate to nearby taverns and strive toward that very goal. Talk about ambition. Those were the days.

If you go to the San Jose Museum of Art, Green's quote is engraved in the state seal in the circle of palms out in front of the place. Badge-wearing office-grunts totter across it every day and never even read what it says.

And no discussion of bar history in San Jose could possibly finish without Astley (A.D.M.) Cooper, the most famous San Jose-based painter, who sold his paintings of nude women to pay off his bar tabs.

He was never a starving artist. He owned an Egyptian-style mansion at 21st and San Antonio and often invited traveling circus troupes over to party in style. On occasion, people still discover Cooper nudes in antique shops up and down the peninsula. He remains a legendary Bohemian part of San Jose history. If only we had more of those guys.

If Tom McEnery, who once bartended at the Tower Saloon, can channel the historical complexities of Thomas Fallon (ha ha), then yours truly can channel the historical complexities of Astley Cooper. We natives are proud of our hometown. To the bars and clubs of today, I raise my glasses on high.