Not plastic bags, nor metal screws, nor cigarette butts. No, the commonest human artifact today is the transistor—invented 60 years ago this month by Bell Labs physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. Millions of these subminiature switches populate computers, cellphones, toys, domestic appliances, and anything else that carries a microchip. Exactly how many transistors are around is hard to know, but several years ago Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel Corp. and author of the famed Moore’s Law, made an educated guess: more than 1018—that’s one quintillion —transistors are produced annually. “We make more transistors per year than the number of printed characters in all the newspapers, magazines, books, photocopies, and computer printouts,” Moore told me recently. “And we sell these transistors for less than the cost of a character in the Sunday New York Times.”
Behind the explosive growth that transistor production has seen since 1960 is a major technological achievement. Today, chipmakers essentially print transistors on silicon wafers. It’s a manufacturing method rooted in the mechanical printing process originated by Johannes Gutenberg more than 500 years ago—though far more complex, of course. Moore himself played a lead role in developing transistor-fabrication technology during the 1960s when he was research director at Fairchild Semiconductor Corp., in Palo Alto, Calif. But much of the credit for that revolutionary advance belongs to a lesser-known semiconductor pioneer and Fairchild cofounder. The unsung hero of this pivotal chapter in the history of electronics—the invention of the planar transistor—is Jean Hoerni.
A Swiss-born theoretical physicist, Hoerni, along with seven other determined, like-minded rebels—Moore, Robert Noyce, Jay Last, Sheldon Roberts, Eugene Kleiner, Julius Blank, and Victor Grinich—founded Fairchild in 1957 [see photo, “The Fairchild Eight].” They all contributed, directly or indirectly, to the new technology, but none so much as Hoerni. Fifty years ago, sitting alone in his office, he elaborated a radically new kind of transistor: a more compact, flatter device whose sensitive parts were protected beneath a thin layer of silicon dioxide. Hoerni’s brilliant idea, more than any other single factor, allowed the fledgling firm to begin printing transistors on silicon. Planar transistors would prove to be much more reliable and perform far better than other designs, in effect rendering the competition’s offerings obsolete.
The planar process also made it easy to interconnect neighboring transistors on a wafer, paving the way to another Fairchild achievement: the first commercial integrated circuits. As other companies realized the great advantages of planar technology and began adopting it on their own production lines, Hoerni’s elegant idea helped to establish Silicon Valley as the microelectronics epicenter of the world.
The final months of 1957 were a time of anticipation at Fairchild as the founders organized the new firm’s labs and production lines in a group of buildings at 844 Charleston Road in Palo Alto. In September of that year, the eight scientists and engineers had resigned en masse from Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, in Mountain View, about 2 kilometers away. They were rankled by the heavy-handed management style of its founder, transistor pioneer William Shockley, and his pursuit of difficult R&D projects at the expense of useful, salable products. So they persuaded the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. of Syosset, N.Y., a firm looking to diversify its business, to found Fairchild Semiconductor. The eight founders planned to use the silicon processing techniques they’d learned under Shockley to make and sell advanced, high-speed transistors.
Their timing could not have been better. On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I into orbit, igniting a frenzied space race with the United States. Millions worldwide gazed skyward to watch the awesome, undeniable evidence that the Soviets had a big head start. Meanwhile, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) spearheaded congressional investigations into how the Eisenhower administration could ever have permitted such a ”missile gap” to arise. With the USSR holding a major advantage in the greater thrust of its missiles, the U.S. aerospace industry sought every imaginable way to reduce the size and weight of its payloads and satellites. “There was a great deal of talk about the packing density of electronic functions in the late 1950s,” Noyce recalled in a 1975 interview, which is archived in the IEEE History Center. ”It was the Missile Age, and transportation costs from here to Russia were very high.” The need for small, ultralight electronic circuits based on reliable silicon transistors made these devices a promising market for Fairchild.