The Billionaires: Cash and chips - the perfect recipe

Go West, young man. Not for gold, nor for open pastures. The place where fortunes are being made in America in the dying days of this century is Silicon Valley. Or if not there, Richmond, Washington.

This may not be hot news. But this year's Forbes list of "Richest Americans" tells the story more vividly than ever. Bill Gates - Richmond is the home of his software colossus, Microsoft - emerges as both number one on this list (again), but as also the wealthiest person on the planet.

More than that, though, among the top five on the list, only Warren Buffett, in second place, made his money by doing something other than fiddling with bytes. (His special talent: Wall Street investing.)

Nowhere can now challenge the computer industry as the place to turn innovation and grit into fortunes. Forbes itself highlights this striking contrast: in 1982, when it published its first list, it was the energy industry that ruled - eight of the top ten had made their money from oil. No longer.

It is no accident, that California - the cradle of the cyber-industry - claims number one spot as the US state with the most members of the 400-club. (It has 83 of them, compared to just 47 for New York in second place, and 29 in Texas). Scan the list and the familiar names leap out, from software factories to processor makers: Intel, Apple, Netscape, Hewlett Packard and so on.

Beneath the top five (whose four high-tech entrants are Gates, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, and Intel chief Gordon Moore), you find Steven Ballmer (No 6), also of Microsoft, Michael Dell (16), of Dell Computer, and William Hewlett (23), of Hewlett Packard.

These cyber-fortunes are mostly on paper, however. Fortunes can be made and just as quickly dashed in Silicon Valley as investors pour dollars into a new venture and just as quickly abandon it. And if Wall Street ever trips on its upwards climb, the technology stocks - and the Forbes stars - could crash quicker than a computer.

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