Is the Tech Boom the New Gold Rush? A History of California's Booms and Busts

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 (Courtesy: The Bancroft Library)

From the gold rush to World War II to the current tech boom, workers and entrepreneurs have flocked to the Bay Area to make their fortunes and spend their money. We'll examine how past economic booms and busts have shaped the Bay Area as part of KQED's new Boomtown series. The series will explore the changing Bay Area -- the surging economy, the cost of living, gentrification and displacement.

Show Highlights

Population Increase

"One of the things we forget about these booms is that there's an incredible churning of population... Those 10,000 people -- each year it's a different 10,000. They're in, they're out, they're gone. And that's one of the characteristics of boomtowns, then, and I think now, too."

- Richard White

Tight Real Estate Market


Richard White, professor of American history at Stanford University and author of "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America"

Christopher O'Sullivan, teacher of California history at the University of San Francisco

Leslie Berlin, project historian at the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University and author of "The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley"

Holly Kernan, executive editor of KQED News


"There have been a series of boom in San Francisco, involving real estate speculation. Consider this, during the Gold Rush and throughout the 1850s -- people think the property situation and the real estate situation is acute right now, and indeed it is, but then, people were buying water lots. They were buying geographical areas in the bay with the anticipation that the bay would ulimately be filled in to the point that they would be able to build on that area."

- Christopher O'Sullivan


"One thing that really separates this boom from some of the previous ones is people are justifiably feeling the income inequality of this current boom. That wasn't really a major factor with some of the previous booms, particularly, the Second World War and Cold War boom. A lot of the jobs that were being created by that government largess, coming to the Bay Area, were working class jobs. They were jobs in shipbuilding and ancillary industries and things like that."

- Christopher O'Sullivan


I think [universities were a] big mitigating factor in alleviating the possibility of backlash during earlier booms in a way that isn't there today. Because if you look at it from the perspective of a young person, even if you weren't directly benefiting from the earlier industrial and ship building booms you were living in a state that in some ways was wisely taking advantage of that boom and investing in public infrastructure, and the most important part of that was public ed. California for a brief golden period from about the Warren administration up until a few decades ago was one of the few places in the world where you could go to school from K through PhD for free."

- Christopher O'Sullivan

Role of Immigrants

"65 percent of the people with bachelor's degrees in Silicon Valley were born in another country. I mean this is amazing -- two thirds of the people who have completed college are born outside the country. Half of the companies started between 1995 and 2005, half of them have at least one founder who was born outside of the United States... I think this constant sort of refresh, this sort of intellectual refresh, that comes with new waves of immigrants just can't be underestimated."

- Leslie Berlin