Notes from a Silicon Forester

Linus Pauling House, Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, Oregon

Some of our founding CEOs were refugees of a sort. I’m thinking of Douglas Strain in particular, a conscientious objector during World War II, the “just war” in some theories.

He served as a guinea pig instead: he and his buddies shivered in refrigerated shipping containers on a fixed prototype diet, helping answer the question of how to best keep troops alive in on the battlefield, affordably. Answer: give them plenty of protein, even though that’s expensive.

Doug went on to impress Hewlett-Packard with his uber-sensitive ohm-meter, which varied precisely over the length of a car key. After a meetup with Packard himself, he came back to his hotel room to face a mounting pile of orders, and he was in business. Electro-Scientific Industries (ESI) was born.

During his time as a student at CalTech, Doug was lucky to get professor Linus Pauling as his chemistry teacher. Linus, an Oregon native, started studying chemistry as a youth on Hawthorne Boulevard, where both Tektronix and Doug’s company were to first establish headquarters. His dad, a pharmacist, had died when Linus was only eight, and his mother started a boarding house in an effort to make ends meet. Linus later won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for his developing our understanding of molecules.

I live in said Hawthorne District in Portland, Oregon and the Pauling home is an historic landmark, ornamented with Alpha Helix, by sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae. That’s across from Third Eye and next to the Adorn body art salon, if you’re in town and looking for the place. Dr. Hawthorne helped found the state’s first mental hospital, on contract from the government in Salem. We still affectionately refer to this area, west of Mt. Tabor, as Asylum District.

Alpha Helix

Doug Strain, one of our region’s great philanthropists, helped keep the Pauling House from getting torn down for condos, currently happening all up and down the street. Old homes like this one disappear overnight.

He also endowed the Douglas Strain Reading Room at Oregon State University, where Linus and Ava Helen Pauling committed their papers and other memorabilia. OSU also hosts a vast collection of “Atomic Age” materials, propaganda from all sides, some on exhibit in the main library.

Given Doug’s pacifism, and that of the Silicon Forest’s founders more generally, it’s not surprising that when his factory needed to relocate to bigger digs, from Stark Street to Macadam, a group of Quakers was selected to bestow it upon. The factory had been owned by Jantzen before that.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), like Linus Pauling (who won two), had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for its work to retire war, to render it obsolete as an institution. The Multnomah Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends remains ensconced in the building to this day, AFSC having moved out in the 1980s.

Ava Helen, Pauling’s wife, was likewise a peace activist, and a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) which celebrated its 100th birthday as an organization last year, in The Hague.

My mother, Carol Urner, attended those celebrations, a lifelong “WILPFer” herself. “Keep Space for Peace” it says on her walker, which she’s needed ever since the near-fatal car accident in South Africa in 2000 (dad was killed). Mom, 87, will be sharing stories from her time in South Africa and Lesotho at said Quaker meeting house this Friday night in fact (October 21).

One of WILPF’s primary activities in Portland is to collaborate with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility on our annual Disarmament Day ceremonies, held in the Japanese-American Friendship Park on August 6, or sometimes 9th, marking the atom bomb detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This year Mayor Charlie Hales issued a proclamation expressing Portland’s hope for a world without nuclear weapons.

Nearby Hanford, Washington was an important Manhatten Project site in the 1940s, when the Nagasaki bomb was built. Cleanup remains a challenge to this day, and a billion dollar industry. Students come to our state to study environmental cleanup and hazardous waste disposal in particular.

Given all this pacifist history, one might suppose the Silicon Forest is opposed to military research but that would be a gross over-simplification.

Speaking as a Quaker, I’d say the best way to make war obsolete is to allow innovation to surpass our need for the cruder forms of outward weaponry, like catapults and tanks.

If we could win our wars through advertising, we would. Portland is home to many an advertising and public relations company. We still believe in winning hearts and minds before doing anything that’s stupidly or blindly destructive.

Evergreen Aviation has played a role in the CIA’s torture taxi business. You can read all about it in Willamette Week. Some of our companies make night vision equipment.

What I will say however, is Cascadian nationalism is a real phenomenon, very evident during Occupy Portland (OPDX) one of the bigger camps, in the middle of downtown. Cascadian swag is everywhere, soft-peddled and low key, like much of our advertising.

In that Cascadian spirit we reach both north and south, to embrace both Seattle and the Bay Area. The Silicon Forest and Valley have much in common, even though in Oregon Trail days, the gold rushers tended to head south.

Oregon, in contrast, was for farmers and dairy co0ps (such as Tillamook), and later hippies and art colonies. We’ve had one of the only state-sponsored counterculture festivals in world history, our Vortex I.

I hope as a reader of these notes, you will appreciate that the Silicon Forest has a varied and nuanced history. Our pioneers are for the most part still unsung. Many histories and biographies remain to be written. I hope to continue contributing to that literature.