Fairchild Semi to Celebrate the Big Five-Oh

The people at Fairchild Semiconductor are tooting their horn these days over the upcoming celebration of their 50th birthday. Obviously, it's a big deal for them, but why should you care? Because the computer or device you're using to read these words depends in large part on the fundamental breakthroughs that the founders of Fairchild made a half century ago. Moreover, the creation of this semiconductor company stands as a dramatic lesson in how progress advances in fits and starts, inspired by individuals when they have the right conditions in which to work their magic.

The story of Fairchild Semi is one of those iconic tales of the rise of Silicon Valley. Like Hewlett and Packard before them and many others since, the company's founders decided they had a great idea and they wanted to pursue it as they alone saw fit. To many tech insiders, especially those interested in the roots of modern computing, their story has become legendary. It begins with the invention of the transistor and a brilliant but eccentric scientist named William Shockley.

In the years prior to World War II, Shockley and a group of researchers at AT&T Bell Labs probed the possibility of creating a solid-state alternative to the vacuum tube triode, the underpinning of then contemporary electronics. After the war, Shockley was put in charge of a group at the labs that developed the first transistor. For their work on the breakthrough, Shockley and his colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain would some years later receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Shockley was a man possessed of a difficult temperament, however, and in 1954, he and the management at Bell Labs parted ways. Two years later, Shockley convinced businessman Arnold Beckman to back his plans to create an advanced solid-state circuit design that would be as revolutionary to the transistor as the transistor was to the vacuum tube. When he moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to start a subsidiary of the Beckman Instruments Co., not a single researcher in his old Bell Labs group accepted an offer to join him. So Shockley set about recruiting a contingent of some of the brightest young minds in America.

Among the 20 prodigies he recruited, Jean Hoerni, Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, and a handful of others quickly became convinced that Shockley was pursuing the wrong course and that what the team should really be doing was working on simple silicon-based transistors using the latest manufacturing techniques. The disagreement simmered and conditions within Shockley Semiconductor Labs soon boiled over, with the head of the namesake firm supplying most of the heat. By the summer of 1957, seven staffers decided they had endured enough and one of them, Eugene Kleiner, approached an investment specialist he knew to make inquiries on behalf of the group to find a backer who might put up the capital to start a new company.

The management of the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Co. just happened to be looking for a way to diversify into the budding transistor business. So a deal was reached with the unhappy Shockley scientists and engineers. In return for start-up funding, Fairchild would back an independent subsidiary upon condition that it be given an option to purchase the interests of the founders upon mutual consent. The group consisted of Hoerni, Kleiner, and Moore, plus Julius Blank, Victor Grinich, Jay Last, and Sheldon Roberts. Noyce, who had been trying to reconcile the differences between the temperamental Shockley and his subordinates, finally threw in the towel and joined the breakaway team.

In October of 1957, the eight members of the new Fairchild Semiconductor Co. opened shop for themselves. An angered Shockley immediately blasted the ideas of the group and labeled them the Traitorous Eight. The initial Fairchild Semi team, however, simply shrugged off the vitriol from their former mentor (who now held a Nobel Prize in his hands) and proceeded to design a new solid-state unit called a mesa transistor. Encountering trouble with its performance, they experimented with novel ways of enhancing its reliability.

Hoerni soon came up with an ingenious method of spreading a photosensitive and etch-resistant coating over the silicon-oxide surface of the unit and exposing it to light interrupted through a photographic plate carrying the image of the base regions desired. Then the oxide layer of the unit was chemically etched so that only the exposed area remained. After the photosensitive coating was removed and the unit was bathed in a diffused gas containing the desired amount of positive or negative impurities, windows could then be etched in the re-grown oxide to make contact with the diffused layers of the unit, or wafer.

Hoerni called the complex procedure the planar process. It was to become one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. Noyce saw the potential of the new manufacturing method and set out to exploit it. He soon realized that by using the planar process a designer could re-create the components found on a typical circuit board of the time and etch them onto the silicon wafer itself. The aluminum layer used to make contact with the base and the emitter of the transistor could also be used to interconnect different electrical components, such as resistors and capacitors. It was a second breathtaking advance in the space of a year. Noyce had conceived the basis of the integrated circuit -- the foundation of modern computing (and just the sort of revolutionary discovery Shockley had been searching for).

In October of 1958, the Fairchild Eight agreed to a buy-out arrangement with Fairchild Camera and Instrument for lucrative stock holdings. They went on to pioneer other improvements to the technology of integrated circuits, soon to be called microchips. Many of the Fairchild Semi principals eventually drifted away from their start-up to pursue other interests in academia and industry. Hoerni founded Union Carbide Electronics in 1964. Noyce and Moore launched Intel Corp. in 1968. Kleiner co-founded the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in 1972. In all, they blazed a trail through the world of electronics that few have ever matched in consequence.

Now, the inheritors of their legacy at Fairchild Semi would like to honor them and the history of the company they began. To celebrate their golden anniversary, a team of alumni volunteers has planned a series of commemorative events for 4-6 October at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Further information can be obtained at a special Fairchild@50 site on the Web. Organizers would like the message to go out that all "Fairchildren" are welcome to attend and participate.

They have a lot to be proud of. Enough to toot their horn as loudly as they want.

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