Makers of the Microchip: A Documentary History of Fairchild Semiconductor, by Christophe Lécuyer and David C. Brock. Foreword by Jay Last. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2010.
This extraordinary portrait of the firm that was at the forefront of the Silicon Valley startup phenomenon begins in 1957, with eight former employees of the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. Jay Last, co-founder of the firm, in his Introduction, maps out in very readable fashion the business model the firm methodically employed and religiously followed to become the pre-eminent manufacturer of silicon transistors for use in digital computers. This history centers on the period between the company’s formative years, from 1957 until the early 1960s.
As Last notes, the firm, named for its original backer, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, was just getting going as the Soviet Union had successfully launched its Sputnik space project. The U.S. military quickly concluded they needed to initiate faster, digitally-based computers to help with defense strategies, and so Fairchild, who had chosen to specialize in semiconductivity, was in a unique position to aid in this initiative.
The company was funded by the New York investment house of Hayden and Stone – one of the first such venture firm financings – and it set up shop just outside of San Francisco. From the start, Fairchild employed a context called “User Logic” to define its business mission and to both identify and pursue goals. Within this context, there were four factors that defined the corporation: reliability of components; miniaturization; increased speed, and lastly, the unrelenting push for digital systems and digital computers in military applications. The U.S. military was keenly interested in developing smaller and faster components as they believed they would be more reliable. Fairchild concurred and pursued this mission aggressively, and ultimately, very profitably.
As Last himself admits, “Responding to these logics, Fairchild Semiconductor’s founders created technological innovations and made business decisions that brought Fairchild from a start-up to a leadership position in the semiconductor manufacturing industry by 1961.” Within this four-year period, Fairchild had developed the technology for diffused silicon devices, the planar process, and the planar integrated circuit – crucial innovations that set the path the semiconductor field has well-worn to this day.
Jean Hoerni, a founder and one of the company’s most accomplished transistor designers, specialized in the PNP transistor, consisting of a silicon and Boron derivative, which maximized both the efficiency and efficacy of the devices. He invented the “planar process” and “gold doping” – the former being an allusion to the transistor’s shape, which resembled a two-tiered mesa, and the latter the process of adding a gold-plating to the transistor, thereby reducing resistance and increasing transmission speed.
Though the book is well-referenced and annotated, perhaps its most striking feature is the reproduction of numerous company documents never before published. There are graph-paper renderings of circuit designs, preliminary and official patent filings, and photographs – taken largely from Jay Last’s personal archive. The authors also thoughtfully include an Appendix that describes the technological concepts and components outlined in the body of the text in lay-speak. Overall, the book is a magnificent contribution to the history of Silicon Valley, featuring a company that has been under-chronicled to this point. Without question, it should reside prominently on every high tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist’s bookshelf.