Where in the World Wide Web Is Al Phillips?

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PHOTO: Left: Al Phillips; Right: Lisa Santo

His name was Al Phillips, and journalist Brian Santo knew this much about him: He’d been a successful semiconductor executive, having founded Western Digital Corp. in Southern California some 40 years ago. But he seemed to have vanished not long after that.

Phillips was just one of a couple of dozen people Santo had set out to interview for this issue’s ”25 Microchips That Shook the World.” The idea was to get insight about the chips straight from the designers and managers who created them. To reach these people, some long retired, Santo put out calls, sent e-mails, and, of course, searched Google. In fact, he Googled like crazy.

”I wish I could just hook up my brain to Google,” sighs Santo [above, right], who started his career at Electronic News , a weekly trade newspaper, in 1984 (when, by the way, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were 11â¿¿yearâ¿¿olds still getting allowances from their parents).

After a few days, Santo had gotten hold of all the people on his list. All except one, that isAl Phillips.

An initial Google search located an Al Phillips in Knoxville, Tenn., but he turned out to be an insurance agent. There was an Al Phillips who was an active member of the Taftville Congregational Church in Connecticut, but he turned out to be a she. There was an Al Phillips who’d recently been a New York Jets cornerback, but no way had he helped architect a chip in the 1970s. Then there was the Canadian wrestler, who was actually better known as Spider Dick, and also the founder of a chain of dry cleaners in Hawaii. Nope, and nope.

Santo kept on Googling, and then he got a break. A letter to the editor of the Orange County Business Journal , in California, was signed ”Al Phillips, Founder, Western Digital Corp., Newport Coast.”

Bingo! From there, Santo turned to the phone book, one of the oldest tools of the trade in journalism--but not a big fat paper one. He used Google’s phone book.

Reached at his home in Newport Coast, Phillips [above, left] was only too happy to chat. But first he needed to keep an appointment at a local golf course. Later, when he did have time to talk, he told Santo he was a former Motorola and Rockwell executive who founded Western Digital in 1970. He also mentioned that he’d written an article published in the June 1964 issue of IEEE Spectrum, ”Monolithic Integrated Circuits,” and that at age 80, he’s still a busy man. He doesn’t play football, but besides golf, he enjoys bicycling and skiing.

Google didn’t turn up those details. For some things, you still do need a phone.

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