The origins of the name Silicon Prairie

(Photo via Pixabay)

I’ve always wondered about where the term “Silicon Prairie” came from.

When my old office was in the Midland Building in Des Moines, there was a poster across the hall that looked like it was about 30 years old and had the text “Silicon Prairie” on it. I wish I would have taken a picture.

Wikipedia gives some insight into the towns covered, but not really the origin of the term. Silicon Prairie News did some brilliant branding with it, but again, I never really understood the origin story.

A little digging and you’ll find that the term has been applied to several tech hubs in the Midwest since the 1980s. Originating in North Texas in the mid-1970s, the term Silicon Prairie proliferated north up to the Dakotas and Chicago.

Finding earliest mentions

The earliest mention of the term “Silicon Prairie” I found online was in a D Magazine article from 1979, which said: “Over the past several years, Dallas/Fort Worth’s electronic industry … is beginning to be known as Silicon Prairie.”

Of course, the term intends to call to mind comparisons to San Francisco’s electronics industry, so I’ll begin there.

Silicon Valley influence

Silicon Valley became a model for development when, in the 1950s, the Fairchild Semiconductor company formed out of the Shockley Transistor company near San Francisco. In fact, development of the industry gained momentum through the 1930s and 1940s. While rapid development commenced in the 1950s, some trace the Silicon Valley tech boom to the 1938 founding of Hewlett Packard.

Regardless of the reality behind the rapid development, the region became symbolic of modern, high-tech progress. Investors and government officials alike looked to Silicon Valley as a model for future progress, hoping to inspire similar leaps forward in their own hometowns. As we all know, this is still the case today.

The term spread just about everywhere it could be applied

This led many local boosters and journalists to evoke comparisons to Silicon Valley with monikers like “Silicon Mesa,” “Silicon Beach,” “Silicon Rain Forest” and, of course, “Silicon Prairie.” The usage of the term Silicon Prairie sprang up in northern Texas, around Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin, used in D Magazine in 1979. Just like in Silicon Valley, the high-tech industry already had a well-developed presence in the region. Texas Instruments was founded in 1951, inventing the silicon transistor in 1954 and unveiling the integral circuit in 1958.

Technology originating in Texas contributed to American space exploration in the 1960s. The presence of large tech companies in the region fostered the development of smaller companies through the attraction of skilled human capital.  Between 1975 and 1979, 15,000 jobs in the high-tech industry were reportedly added in the Silicon Prairie area, an increase from 35,000 to 50,000 employees.

The term itself had been used regularly in journalism and every day conversation throughout this period of rapid growth. Dissemination of the term accelerated between the 1980s and 1990s from North Texas all the way up to South Dakota. Naperville, Illinois was referred to as the capital of DuPage County’s “Silicon Prairie” in 1986. In 1997, Gateway 2000 was referred to in the New York Times as a “unique company” on the Silicon Prairie, again indicating wide usage.

Lawsuits and trademark battles followed over which city was the site of the true silicon prairie. A student organization in Iowa had referred to themselves as Silicon Prairie since at least 1982, trademarking certain URL’s with the term, some of which were purchased later by the Chicago Tribune.  A Kansas City-based organization, Silicon Prairie Technology Association, threatened to sue the Silicon Prairie Interactive Network in 1995.

Searching TESS (Trademark Electronic Search System), you can also find various filings for the trademark over the years. The first one filed in 1988 and the most recent abandoned in 2015. There’s even a trademark filing for Silicon Prairie News that was dropped in 1998.

Silicon Prairie Trademark Filings
Silicon Prairie Trademark Filings

Eventually, the conflict over who had the right to use this term seems to have settled as journalists today extend the term to places like “Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and the Dakotas.” A strong startup community has been driven to the region in recent years by the lower cost of living and friendlier, less cutthroat culture newcomers can find on Silicon Prairie.

To wrap it up, the term Silicon Prairie likely originated in Texas in the mid-1970s, and by the 1980s, had spread throughout the Midwest, resulting in a great deal of contention over who possessed the right to use the term.

Today, a flourishing scene of new entrepreneurs eagerly cooperating on behalf of one another’s success, has developed across the Midwest. While some view it as a wholly new phenomenon, the tech industry of the  Silicon Prairie has been gaining momentum for decades.

So, like most well accepted ideas, what seemed to have happened overnight was actually created by decades of work and repetition.

Ben Milne is a co-founder of Clay & Milk and the founder of Dwolla, a technology company in Des Moines.