1958: The birth of integrated circuits
May 19, 1999
by Leslie Goff
(IDG) -- The Fairchild Eight weren't thinking a lot about their legacy in 1958. They didn't see that they were on the verge of spawning a new industry, of planting the seed that would grow into Silicon Valley.
Had it not been for their research and development that year, the computer industry -- our jobs, our way of life -- might look quite different. Their ideas about how to efficiently mass-produce silicon-based integrated circuits, either directly or indirectly, made possible nearly everything that information technology is capable of today.
But at the time they were focused only on making reliable transistors and finding a way to combine many of them into a single device using silicon instead of the then-standard material, germanium. Silicon could withstand high temperature better than germanium.
"No one had any strong feeling that these devices were going to take over the world," says Jay Last, one of the eight. It wasn't until the mid-to-late 1960s that the Fairchild Eight's true legacy began to take shape.
In 1958, "[We] were all very busy and we never had any time to sit back and reflect," says Julius Blank, a Fairchild co-founder who now is a director at Xicor Inc. in Milpitas, Calif., a manufacturer of nonvolatile memory devices.
Last, Blank, Eugene Kleiner, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, Jean Hoerni, Sheldon Roberts and Victor Grinich were a diverse group of young scientists, all in their mid-20s to mid-30s. They had come to the San Francisco Bay area in 1956 to work for William Shockley, who had won the Nobel Prize that year with John Bordeen and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor at Bell Laboratories. But the eight, disagreeing with Shockley over technology and management issues, left his start-up, Shockley Semiconductor, en masse in late 1957 to found Fairchild Semiconductor. Shockley called them the "Traitorous Eight."
The creation of Fairchild Semiconductor would establish a model for entrepreneurs for the rest of this century. Each of the men was promised stock options, a then unheard-of arrangement. They dispensed with job titles and had an open working relationship.
"None of us went to business school, but we turned out to be pretty good managers after all," says Kleiner, who later contributed to the expansion of Silicon Valley as a co-founder of the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. "It was an informal, hard-working and effective group."
With $3,500 in seed money from Fairchild Camera, they secured a building on Charleston Road in Palo Alto, Calif., and set about building from scratch the equipment they would need to create silicon-based integrated circuits.
By 1958 they were making their own transistors, and Hoerni was perfecting the planar process, which ultimately enabled the team to manufacture integrated circuits using silicon instead of germanium. When Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments, that year introduced what's regarded as the first integrated circuit using germanium, they felt affirmation rather than competition.
"We had the benefit of the planar patent, which enabled us to do this thing more monolithically than [Texas Instruments] at the time," Blank says.
Hoerni patented the planar process a year later, and Noyce constructed the first integrated circuit on a layer of silicon. An industry had been born.
"The first 50 years of transistors were very similar to the first 50 years of the Gutenberg press," says Last, a venture capitalist and publisher of fine-art books who now lives in Beverly Hills, Calif. "They happened 500 years apart, and they trace almost the exact same path: Both became mature industries within the same amount of time. The [integrated circuit] changed the world the way the Gutenberg did -- but even more so -- by giving us this enormous ability to communicate."
Goff is a frequent contributor to Computerworld. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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