In Columbus, Ohio, they look out the window of the state office building towards the Ohio State University campus and tell you that the brainpower harnessed at OSU is the basis of the state's economic future.

Go to Pittsburgh, and the locals will tell you that there are enough computers there to make Steeltown into Silicon City.

But in Chicago, they'll tick off the list of major local banks available to pump money into growth companies.

In these and other cities, task forces are being set up, the wheels of government are spinning and civic leaders are casting platitudes right and left, all in the interest of grabbing onto the tail of the great comet Hi-Tech.

"Bring a couple of computer companies here," they seem to be saying, "and our local economy will boom, unemployment will end, and we won't have to rely any longer on the steel/heavy equipment/textile/whatever industry that has been the backbone of this great city."

The object, in short, is to replicate those two magical fantasy lands on either coast, California's Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128, clusters of high-technology companies that are booming like almost nowhere else, even in this time of economic resurgence.

The Columbuses and Pittsburghs say they're assembling all the same ingredients that made Silicon Valley and Route 128 possible: major research universities to provide talent, financiers to put up money, and top-notch qualities of life to attract and keep the white-collar professionals that make high-tech firms go.

You don't hear much of that talk around Washington. The business of this town is government, the cliche' goes, and as a result, not many people give much thought to the kind of industries that are the business of most other towns. The joke: How many Washington businessmen does it take to change a lightbulb? Both of them.

But that's probably not going to bring many laughs in the concrete and glass edifices that have sprouted around the Beltway and up I-270 in Montgomery County. Without a lot of fanfare, the Washington area has turned into a high-tech center that, in its way, is a rival of those in California and Boston, and which is making the area a significant business center.

By one reckoning, Northern Virginia alone has 600 companies that fall into the broad category of high technology, and those in Maryland and the District must easily double that total. No longer does The Washington Post's listing of Top 100 area companies barely exclude a couple of Exxon stations--it's now chockful of companies like McLean's Planning Research Corp. and BDM International Inc., Bethesda's Survival Technology Inc. and Rockville's Biospherics Inc.

Firms like these represent all sorts of leading-edge technologies that fall under the high-tech banner. Scope Inc., in Fairfax, makes a variety of equipment used in electronic warfare and sophisticated manufacturing and marketing applications. Rockville's Genex Corp. is involved in recombinant DNA research. MCI, one of the area's giants, is at the forefront of the communications revolution. And there are any number of companies involved in computer-system assembly, data-processing, and the all-encompassing professional services business.

Most cities would kill to have two or three of these companies, even in start-up modes, as the seedlings for their high-tech revitalization. And those cities are trying to germinate such companies, linking researchers at the local university with downtown bankers and investors in a bid to create some of the synergistic magic that was the basis for Silicon Valley or Route 128

But Washington's leap into the new age has been, by comparison, accomplished in a backwards fashion. It's been a demand-driven revolution--not a function, as in California and Boston, of a brimming supply of technology ideas and money to feed them, but rather the result of needs by government agencies for a variety of high-tech products and services. It's no coincidence that there are companies building aircraft drones and flight simulators a few miles from the Pentagon, nor that there is specialized electronic communications equipment being built around the corner from the CIA, nor that there are all sorts of professional-services companies scattered around the suburbs doing everything from managing government projects to helping think up new Army camouflage schemes.

It's parasitic, in a way, but it's also been a highly successful formula for growth of entirely new industries in an area that has heretofore not had much of any kind of industry but government. And it's not hurt a bit by the fact that there's a huge pool of talent available for these companies from the ranks of government service. High-tech companies around the Beltway collect retired bird colonels the way companies along Route 128 pick up associate professors from MIT and Harvard.

But take a closer look at this burgeoning group of companies and you'll find that not all is rosy.

The area still lacks a first-class university to turn out the kinds of scientists that Silicon Valley gets from Stanford and Route 128 recruits from the schools around Boston. Washington's swollen bar does not include many of the kinds of corporate lawyers that bigger companies need. And in spite of efforts of investment bankers and venture capitalists like Alex.

Brown & Sons of Baltimore and Allied Captial Corp. in Washington, the big California high-tech financiers like Hambrecht & Quist and Robertson Colman and Stephens aren't finding much competition when they come hunting for clients around the Beltway.

The development of the Washington area as a major high-technology center could depend on its ability to supply to its growing companies, and to the companies yet unborn, the kind of academic, financial and legal muscle that have made Silicon Valley and Route 128 symbols of the nation's economic future. At a time when dozens of other cities are scrambling to get the kind of foothold in the future that Washington already has, this area has to develop the strength to climb even further, or Washington's bid to become one of the high-tech giants could stagnate.