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Happy Birthday, Fairchild

3 min read

The folks at Fairchild Semiconductor Corp. are tooting their horns in celebration of their recent 50th anniversary. It’s a big deal for them, but why should we care? Because the computer and electronic devices we use depend in large part on the fundamental breakthroughs the founders of Fairchild made a half century ago. The creation of this company is a remarkable demonstration of how progress advances, in fits and starts, when the right set of individuals have the right conditions in which to work their magic.

For many tech insiders, especially those interested in the roots of modern computing, the Fairchild story is the stuff of legend. It begins with the invention of the transistor at AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories.

In the years prior to World War II, AT&T’s William Shockley probed the possibility of creating a solid-state alternative to the vacuum tube triode. After the war, he was put in charge of the group that developed the first transistor. For their work on this breakthrough, Shockley and his colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain would receive the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Shockley was a brilliant but difficult man, however, and in 1955 he and Bell Labs parted ways. The following year 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. But when he moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to start his company, not a single researcher in his old Bell Labs group accepted an offer to join him. So Shockley set about hiring some of the brightest young minds in America to form his fledgling company.

Among the 20 prodigies he recruited, Jean Hoerni, Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, and a handful of others quickly realized that Shockley was not going to be able to advance the field further. And so the dissident staffers decided to start their own company.

In October 1957, the eight members of the newly formed Fairchild Semiconductor Co. opened shop. A furious Shockley labeled them the Traitorous Eight.

The Fairchild team’s first effort was to commercialize a new solid-state device called a mesa transistor. Encountering trouble with its performance, they experimented with novel ways of enhancing its reliability. Jean Hoerni [see Michael Riordan's account of Hoerni's contribution to the semiconductor industry, "The Silicon Dioxide Solution," in this issue] came up with an ingenious alternative. Here’s an excerpt from one of Gordon Moore’s accounts of the invention of the planar transistor:

Jean was a theoretician, and so was not very useful at the time we were setting up the original facility at Fairchild, building furnaces and all that kind of stuff. He just sat in his office, scribbling things on a piece of paper, and he came up with this idea for building a transistor with the silicon oxide layer left on top over the junctions. Where the silicon junctions come to the surface of the silicon is a very sensitive area, which we used to expose and had to work awfully hard to keep clean. Hoerni said, ”Why not leave the oxide on there?” The conventional wisdom from Bell Laboratories had been that by the time you got done, the oxide was so dirty that you wanted to get rid of it. Nobody had ever tried leaving the oxide on. We couldn’t try it either, because it required making four mask steps, each indexed with respect to the next with very high precision—a technology that didn’t exist.

So we couldn’t even try Jean’s idea until a year and a half or so after we had gone into business. When we finally got around to trying it, it turned out to be a great idea; it solved all the previous surface problems.

Noyce quickly saw the potential of the new manufacturing method. He 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 the second breathtaking advance at Fairchild in a year. Noyce had conceived an integrated circuit that could be commercially developed—thus laying the foundation of modern computing.

The Fairchild Eight went on to pioneer other improvements to microchip technology. Eventually, most of the principals moved on to create other companies. They blazed an entrepreneurial trail through the world of electronics that few have matched [for a look at Fairchild's corporate genealogy, see "Fairchild Turns 50," IEEE Spectrum, October].

So when we get giddy about the pace of technological breakthroughs today, we should take a moment to remember that a small band of workers rolled up their sleeves 50 years ago and set our digital world in motion. Thanks, Fairchild!

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