MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Charles DiLisio is Silicon Valley's practical preservationist.
Yes, he's a big fan of the past -- the old buildings and the stories they tell about creation, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. He'd save them all if he could, not necessarily by preserving them in the space they occupy, but by capturing them in digital form and then finding a way to show the world what we have here.
For more than a year, he's been prowling the South Bay, photographing the monuments (or what's left of them) to the valley's past: Fairchild, ROLM, Shockley labs, Ampex. He's taking pictures of buildings that were key to those companies. And he's chronicling the history of newer titans like Apple, Google (GOOG), Facebook and others. He hopes to span the valley's modern history, from the silicon age to the computer age to the Internet age to the social networking age.
"What I'm trying to do is bring some awareness that we have some history," he says. "We kind of have this feeling in the valley, if it's broke, we're just going to start over. We just tear it down and munch it over."
Today, DiLisio is thinking about the way we're about to munch over the Shockley building, just down the street from where I meet him to talk about his project, which he calls "Silent Icons of Silicon Valley." The building is coming down to make way for a sprawling office, residential, retail and entertainment center. DiLisio feels a new sense of urgency with the coming demise of the building where Nobel laureate William Shockley and a brilliant team launched the semiconductor revolution in the mid-1950s.
"This spawned phenomenal change in the world," says DiLisio, 57, a chip industry consultant from Saratoga. "This spawned the semiconductor and the semiconductor led to computing, communications, the Internet, all the electronics in your car and all the stuff the NSA is doing or not doing, for good or bad."
Yes, he's passionate, but passionate with a plan. He wants to make 75 pictures of Silicon Valley hot spots and pair them with photos of what those places looked like in their prime. He'd like to produce a gallery show and maybe a book, or an e-book and an interactive map with text explaining the history of his photographed places.
DiLisio's plan is ambitious and still forming, but I'm all for it. Silicon Valley has a peculiar relationship with its history. For years those fixated on the future practically scoffed at saving anything that led to it. Products, people, buildings became obsolete for a reason: There was something better. And in fairness it was sometimes hard to know what was significant in the moment, when the moments were passing in a blur and the valley's brilliant minds were on to the next thing before many among us could grasp what it was they'd just abandoned.
But we've gotten better, with the Computer History Museum and History San Jose saving key artifacts and curating important stories. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) purchased and painstakingly restored the Palo Alto garage that launched the company in 1939. Oral histories have been gathered, books have been written and documentaries made saving the spirit of the place.
Still, every additional bit helps. As Brian Grayson, executive director of the Preservation Action Council in San Jose says: "Anything that promotes preservation and educates people about preservation about anything, we think is a good idea."
DiLisio has spoken to the nonprofit council about his project. And he's talked to the Computer History Museum, the San Jose Museum of Art and he plans to talk to other history and preservation outfits. So far they've been encouraging, DiLisio says, though they haven't pledged specific support. It could be, he says, that a museum some day hosts his gallery and it becomes a fundraiser for the organization.
He's also contacting the valley's big companies in hopes of snagging corporate sponsors for his work, which could cost up to $40,000 depending on how many of the elements (the gallery, the book etc.) he pulls off.
For now, DiLisio just keeps shooting, spending weekends and sometimes nights (for effect) photographing the inanimate objects that animated the technology revolution. He's working on Intel (INTC), Cisco (CSCO), Daisy Systems, Amdahl, Hewlett-Packard, Four-Phase Systems and plenty of others. Sure, he gets some stares -- and security at secrecy-obsessed Apple shooed him off company property in what he estimates was four seconds after he took out his camera.
"I haven't been stopped many times," he says, "because people think I'm completely nuts."
His subjects can be a challenge: cookie-cutter tilt-ups; bare lots where icons like Walker's Wagon Wheel once stood.
But he manages to find traces of humanity -- like the lone basketball hoop planted in the parking lot of a former Intel chip fab. Or of the shot he stumbled upon -- not of an historic spot, but of an iconic scene. It's a nighttime photo, through a window, showing the well-lighted break room of a typical valley company. There's the fridge and the microwaves, the coffee carafes, the scattered tables and chairs and a big round analog clock on the wall.
"This is what people remember," DiLisio says. "You were there in the middle of the night, doing some project. There was always a clock in the break room."
And the clock was always ticking. Just like the one that DiLisio hears as the valley hurtles forward.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.