In the American Mold: The Founders of Fairchild and the Pioneer Ethos

MicroElectronics GroupIn his first-hand account of the voyage of the Mayflower, William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, noted that those set on going to America minimized the threat of savages, disease, famine, and the journey itself, believing that “all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.  The dangers were great,” wrote Bradford, “but not desperate, the difficulties many, but not invincible.”  More than half of those who arrived at Cape Cod on the Mayflower died within the year.  Lacking food, safe water, and shelter, the survivors persevered.  They farmed, fished, cleared forests, built schools, and laid down a government. 

The progeny of those first settlements poured out over the land, throwing themselves, as O.E. Rölvaag wrote in Giants in the Earth, “blindly into the impossible, accomplishing the unbelievable.  Youth was in the race; the unknown, the untried, the unheard-of, was in the air; people caught it, were intoxicated by it, threw themselves away and laughed at the cost.  Of course it was possible—everything was possible out here.”  Such was the spirit that “would swell and surge on again with every new wave of settlers that rolled westward into the unbroken solitude.”

The pioneer ethos runs deep in our national identity.  The last and greatest of the railroad titans was James J. Hill, who built the Great Northern Railroad.  A rough‑hewn, thickset, one‑eyed man with a massive head and long, shaggy hair, he would climb down from his private railroad car in a blizzard to crawl under a stalled locomotive or relieve one of the older shovel‑stiffs, all of whom he knew by first name.  A frontier character in a frock coat, he captured the romantic image of rugged American expansion when he said “Give me enough whiskey and enough Swedes and I’ll build a railroad to Hell!” 

“America,” said Edward Harriman, owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, had been developed by pioneers “flush with enthusiasm, imagination, and speculative bent.”  The pioneer spirit has infused the two great transformations of modern history.  The harnessing of steam brought a revolution in transportation, reducing continental distances from months to days.  The discovery of electricity brought a revolution in communications, reducing distance from days to seconds and spawning the global village.  The icon of its inception is Thomas Edison, the trainboy and itinerant telegrapher who invented much of the twentieth century.  The icons of its future—which extends beyond communications to every aspect of human endeavor—are the eight men who founded Fairchild, the company that seeded Silicon Valley.

Robert Noyce grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, founded in 1854 by Josiah Grinnell, who sought to create a midwestern Protestant version of the Puritan “City Upon a Hill.”  The son of a Congregational minister, Noyce took the town’s Dissenting Protestant aura—the work ethic, the minimal regard for wealth and status, and the idealistic sense of a common struggle against harsh odds—to a new frontier in the far west when he and seven others founded Fairchild, the company that developed the integrated circuit, launched the digital revolution, and changed the course of human evolution.  The lives of Fairchild’s founders evince the same “enthusiasm, imagination, and speculative bent,” the same persevering optimism, idealism, and crucibles of hardship that defined the pioneer ethos.

Julius Blank, who got Fairchild’s factory up and running and built their factories worldwide, went to school on New York’s lower east side.  When his father lost his factory job during the Depression, Julie’s older sister helped support the family.  Graduating from high school in 1940 and unable to afford college, he worked at anything he could get.  “I was in a construction company for awhile,” he says.  “Eventually I went to college at night.  They were looking for machinists so I went to a vocational school two nights a week in addition to college.  I got a job as a machinist but was inducted into the Army in 1944 and sent with the infantry to the Belgium-Luxemburg area in 1944.  I was wounded in the shoulder during the Battle of Hertzgen Forest, one of the worst battles of the war.  I came home, got a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the City College of New York, and went to work for Western Electric in New Jersey.  I was in the same car pool and worked in the same building with Gene Kleiner.  When we heard about an offer to work in California with William Shockley, the co-inventor of the transistor, we applied and got the job.  So we became two of the ‘traitorous eight’ who later left Shockley to form Fairchild.”  Blank later co-founded Xicor and now lives in Los Altos Hills.

Eugene Kleiner, who headed manufacturing at Fairchild and designed much of the production equipment, fled with his family from Vienna in 1938 at the age of 15 just before the Nazis took over, arriving in New York two years later.  Serving in the Army during the war, he was able to get a Master’s degree in industrial engineering from New York University on the G.I. Bill in 1948.  After Fairchild, he co-founded Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm that financed more than 350 information technology and biotech companies, including Sun Micro, Google, AOL, Genentech, and Amazon.  Kleiner died in 2003. 

Victor Grinich, who ran Fairchild’s applications engineering laboratory,  was born Victor Grgurinovich to Croatian immigrant parents and grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, where his father worked in the lumberyards.  He went to the University of Washington on money provided by the Navy, having joined during the war.  Grinich went on from Fairchild to found a string of companies, taught at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, and wrote a textbook on integrated circuits.  “Vic probably did more to push analog circuitry than anyone I know,” says Blank.  Grinich died of prostate cancer in 2000.

Jay Last, who developed the photolithography process with Noyce at Fairchild and directed the group that produced the first integrated circuit, describes his childhood in a steel mill town in western Pennsylvania as “a really rough time for the family.”  His father was a school teacher but had decided that he could better support the family by going to work in the steel mill.  Then came the Depression, and there was a year when his father made only $600.  At age 16, Jay hitchhiked across the country and spent a summer picking apricots and working in the canneries and packing houses of what would become Silicon Valley.  There have been times, he says, when he has been heartened by the memory of surviving 3,000 miles from home at age 16, broke, and weighing 100 pounds, with a nickel’s worth of carrots for his daily lunch.  But it was the beauty of that agricultural landscape, he says, that later drew him back. 

Last and Jean Hoerni went on from Fairchild to form Amelco, the semiconductor division of Teledyne—whose sales then rose from $5 million to $86 million in four years.  It was the Swiss-born Hoerni whose inspiration while in the shower one morning produced the planar transistor, sometimes called the greatest invention of the twentieth century because it enabled Fairchild to develop the first practical integrated circuit.  Hoerni launched many other companies and died of a rare form of cancer in 1997.

The Fairchild legend includes an illustrious few not present at the creation.  The flamboyant Jerry Sanders, Fairchild’s worldwide sales manager at age 31, grew up on the south side of Chicago, raised by paternal grandparents from age four after his parents divorced.  At one point in his youth he was beaten up by a gang while coming to a friend’s rescue; he was in a coma for three days and given last rites.  His grandfather often called him a “shanty Irishman,” saying he would never amount to anything unless he got an education.  When Sanders went to the University of Illinois on a scholarship from the Pullman railroad car company, no one came to his graduation, and his grandfather presented him with a bill for food, laundry, and other expenses.  “I learned,” he says, “that whatever I achieved I would have to achieve on my own.”  Sanders later co-founded Advanced Micro Devices, Intel’s major competitor.

Charlie Sporck, who later took charge of manufacturing at Fairchild, spent his childhood in New York, where his father drove a cab.  “We didn’t have any money at all,” he says.  “My father had been a machinist but got tuberculosis.  My mother took in laundry because my father couldn’t work.”  After a stint in the Army, Sporck got himself through Cornell working at G.E.’s engineering program.  He left Fairchild in 1966 to revive National Semiconductor, taking it from virtual bankruptcy to a multibillion dollar, multinational giant.

Lester Hogan, who came to Fairchild as general manager in 1968, put himself through college driving spikes on the Great Northern Railroad.   He joined the Navy in 1942 and did work on acoustic torpedoes, training submarine crews in the use of that technology in the Pacific theater.  He invented the microwave gyrator at Bell Labs, worked for Shockley, was a Harvard professor in the 50s, and became general manager of semiconductor operations at Motorola before coming to Fairchild.

Jack Gifford, who came to Fairchild at age 24 and became head of linear marketing, went to Banning high school down by the docks in Los Angeles.  His mother’s family migrated to California out of the Arkansas Dust Bowl.  His father, an orphan who left home at 14, was a sometime prize fighter who came to California and got a job in Los Angeles digging ditches for Mobil Oil.  Graduating from UCLA on a baseball scholarship, Gifford wanted to play professionally but couldn’t do it and support his family.  He joined Fairchild in Los Angeles, was promoted to Mountain View, and went on to co-found AMD with Sanders, later running Intersil and founding Maxim.

Harry Sello, who had developed the diffusion furnace for Shockley, headed pre-production engineering at Fairchild, directed worldwide marketing, and managed their manufacturing alliances in Europe and Asia.  At the age of two, Sello (originally Solovay) emigrated from the Ukraine to Chicago, where the family was hit hard by the Depression, his father driving a milk wagon and his mother working as a nurse.  Harry helped his father on the milk wagon and spent hours reading books from the library, especially on science.  He volunteered for the Navy, ending up in Okinawa on a destroyer escort, picking up downed flyers.  With a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Missouri, he came to Fairchild after working for Shockley and stayed for 22 years.  At one point he was sent to Italy for two years to establish the new planar technology in Europe, managing the Societa Generale Semicondottori in partnership with Roberto Olivetti and a small Italian communications company.  Sello hosted a weekly science series of 104 programs on KQED in the 1960s, and in 1982 formed Harry Sello & Associates, a Menlo Park consulting firm.

Born in 1938, Wilf Corrigan, manager of Fairchild’s semiconductor division in the early 1970s and later CEO, spent his youth in Liverpool, where his father worked on the docks.  One of England’s major ports during the war, it was bombed every night.  Fifty percent of the houses were destroyed, and the local swimming pool was drained to receive the daily bodies.  With his father away in the Navy until 1946, Wilf and his mother were evacuated to a valley 30 miles inland, where they lived in another family’s back room and his mother worked in a munitions factory.  Preferring even the bombings to that situation, they returned to the city after a few months.  Wilf remembers it seeming normal to run down the street as the bombs fell.  “I’ve led a charmed life,” he says. 

Having hitch-hiked all over the U.S. at age nineteen and wanting to return, he left England with a degree in chemical engineering and ended up at Transitron in Boston, living in a boarding house with other young immigrant engineers.  They could always get a free dinner by being interviewed, so nearly every night they went out and got interviewed.  Since Motorola was looking for someone who knew something about epitaxy (growing crystals), which Corrigan had pursued as a student, he answered the ad.  Epitaxy gave Motorola the jump, enabling them to reduce transistor size by 75 percent.  Corrigan got a number of basic patents in epitaxy, pushed the process at Fairchild, and left to co-found LSI logic when Schlumberger bought out the company.

Born András Gróf in 1936 to a Jewish family in Budapest, Andy Grove was diagnosed at the age of four with scarlet fever.  The disease was nearly fatal, leaving him with a significant hearing loss.  With the rise of the Nazis, he was literally a hunted child for almost a decade.  His father was sent to fight on the Russian front, and Andy fled with his mother, hiding in the cellar of a hovel outside of Budapest, where his mother was raped by invading Russian soldiers.  His father’s mother and a number of other relatives died in Auschwitz.  Surviving the war, he endured the Soviet Communist regime until 1956 when the short-lived Hungarian Revolt allowed him to escape.  Under the cover of night, he left his parents on a street corner and literally crawled out of Hungary.  Any demonstration of affection would have drawn the Russians’ attention. 

Arriving in New York in 1957 with virtually nothing but the shirt on his back, he entered the tuition-free City College of New York and was first in his class.  With a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from U.C. Berkeley, he joined Fairchild in 1963 and went on to co-found Intel with Gordon Moore in 1968, becoming CEO in 1987.  While at Fairchild, Grove achieved a fundamental understanding of the MOS structure for integrated circuits, which became the basis of Intel.  Facing a number of situations where he literally bet the company, he took Intel’s market capitalization from $18 billion to $197 billion.  Credited with ushering in the modern computing industry, turning Intel from a manufacturer of memory chips into the world’s dominant producer of microprocessors, Grove was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1997.

“There was a moment in 1966,” Wilf Corrigan reflects, “when virtually every area of integrated circuit technology was there at Fairchild.”  “God, wouldn’t it have been great,” Charlie Sporck muses, “if we’d been able to keep all these people together at Fairchild.  We’d have owned the world.”  They left for many reasons, in part from frustration over a lack of vision on the part of the parent company, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, which not only withheld funding but took a large chunk of the profits, much of which was lost on other ventures.  Had it not been for the parent company’s myopia, Fairchild could have become the Intel of the world.  But in the larger perspective, the myriad opportunities spawned by the technologies Fairchild developed were too multifarious and explosive for any one company to exploit.  The spinoffs were inevitable.  Business historian Alfred Chandler wrote that the problem with Fairchild “was that it produced entrepreneurs, not products.”  But they were more than entrepreneurs—and more than scientists and engineers.  Like the pioneers who settled the New World and the American west, they were optimists and idealists in the classic American mold.

“I think I’ve always been kind of optimistic,” says Jerry Sanders, who drove AMD through hard times.  “I’ve never let myself be burdened with negativity.  Learn from your mistakes, learn from your experiences, and move forward.  I’m a great believer in the American dream.  All my ancestors were immigrants—a general contractor from Sweden, a laborer from Ireland.  And they all came to America and made a better life, where nothing is impossible if you put enough energy and effort into it.  So I’ve always had that belief.”

Through many difficult recessions Sanders refused to lay off employees, with whom he shared some of his wealth.  AMD was the first Silicon Valley company to institute profit-sharing; and every employee got stock options, a major innovation at the time.  At the end of the company’s first million-dollar quarter, Sanders stood by the door and handed a $100 bill to every employee as they left.  Once, after meeting a successful sales goal, the company held a drawing among all the employees, and an immigrant production worker won $1000 a month for 20 years. 

The goal of Fairchild’s founders was less to make money than to make a better world.  Shortly after launching Fairchild, Jay Last, then 27, wrote to his parents:  “Our motivation for going into this is the chance to be our own bosses and to do a job the way we think it should be done rather than the financial aspects.”  And Gene Kleiner, a self-effacing man who always lived modestly, “came to California in 1956,” said his Economist obituary, “a nerdy young engineer in a flannel suit and tie,” whose “only desire was to make a perfect transistor.” 

For most, the idealism remained strong into later life, eschewing private aviation, mega-yachts, and Versailles estates in favor of helping others and fixing the world.  Most have received numerous awards for their service.  When Charlie Sporck came to Fairchild he expected to stay about two years, save $10,000, and return to his hometown in upstate New York to spend his days running a small country motel with his wife.  Many careers later, he does live in a small town in upstate New York.  He built a building for a little college there—literally built it himself. 

Jay Last recalls reaching his mid-40s and thinking “this is too comfortable, and I’m too young to be comfortable.”  So he quit the industry and has since founded the Archeological Conservancy, which has saved over 300 American archeological sites.  Fascinated by history, Last started a foundation to fund projects in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American history and set up research fellowships at the American Antiquarian Society.  In 1982 he launched the Hillcrest Press in Beverly Hills, publishing fine-art books.  “My only regret now,” he says “is that I’m not going to have time to do everything I want to do.”  Jean Hoerni, who shared with Last a love of mountain climbing, later created a foundation called the Central Asia Institute with a one-million-dollar endowment for the Balti mountain people, who lived a harsh life without medical care or education in the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan. 

In naming Andy Grove Man of the Year, Time magazine cited his “entrepreneurial optimism instilled as an immigrant to a land brimming with freedom and opportunity,” and commended him as the “person most responsible for the amazing growth in the power and innovative potential of microchips.”  He holds several patents in semiconductor technology and has written six books, over 40 technical papers, and numerous articles, including a weekly column in several newspapers.  In 2006 he made a $26 million donation to City College of New York, the largest donation ever made to that school.  He is also actively involved in the Grove Foundation, a private philanthropic organization. 

The true goal of winning, as Gordon Moore has said, is giving—serving something larger than oneself.  Those who pioneered Fairchild and altered the course of humanity stand in sharp contrast to current business trends, where short-term opportunism has often sacrificed industries fundamental to America’s global competitiveness, while the trade deficit careens toward the trillion-dollar mark.  To exit automobiles or consumer electronics is to be left scrambling on the outside of exponentially accelerating and converging innovation, while the cost of reentry—in a world where electronics now infuses almost every industry—soars out of reach in accordance with Moore’s Law (the bi-annual doubling of the number of transistors on a chip and the consequent runaway cost of building and equipping a factory).  This is in contrast to Japan, where industries cooperate—even persist under adverse conditions—when it benefits their nation to do so. 

There are those who wax nostalgic, feeling that technology has trapped humanity into going faster and faster in the hope that some day it will enable us to stop.  The microprocessor is not merely an invention, but a metainvention—an inventor of inventions—and has thus triggered what physicists call a “phase transition” in human evolution.  “You can’t change the technological heart of a society this fast—the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution every couple of years,” writes Silicon Valley journalist Michael Malone, “without profoundly changing everything about who we are and how we live.”  But “a fundamental rule in technology,” says Andy Grove, “is that whatever can be done will be done.  Technology happens.  It’s not good, it’s not bad.  Is steel good or bad?”  It all depends on the user.  “I hardly ever use a cell phone,” says Jay Last.  “I value my privacy and my time to think about things and don’t like to be interrupted.”

But there is always the intellectual who will argue that steel is bad simply on principle, that technology is undermining everything natural to the world and its people.  At one extreme is the poststructuralist belief that all knowledge and opinion is politically motivated—a radical skepticism that attacks the value of history, of the family, and of all authority, certainty, unity, knowledge, and meaning.  At the other is the regressive ignorance of religious fundamentalism.  Both are the enemies of science and of any hope for understanding the human condition.

If Fairchild’s pioneers believed anything to be certain it was the value of science and the efficacy of the scientific method.  With every new advance there is a smorgasbord of opportunities like those that faced the founders of Fairchild—opportunities to learn and build something new, to create, to accumulate enough prestige or power to fundamentally change many lives.  Science education—the public understanding of science—is requisite to the survival of civilization, if not of our species.  Ignorance is the prime medium for every war, act of terror, and myopic “ism.”  It is only through science that we have been able to pierce the infantile, dysfunctional need to be the center of the universe.  That we even do science is a hopeful sign for our mental health.  Science is nothing more than a never-ending search for truth.  What could be more profoundly sacred?  In some far future, when all our conceits are revealed to be but a product of our history and inborn imperatives, science will still be ratcheting ahead, finding bits of reality.  No single bit is sacred.  But the quest is.

It is the optimism and idealism inherent in that quest to both understand and better the human condition that the pioneers of Fairchild embody.  They are emblematic of those things unique to our species—openness, curiosity, experimenting, exploration, risk-taking—that have always been the thrust of any pioneering venture, whether it be our migration out of Africa into the northern ice, the discovery of the New World, the shaping of a continent, or spawning a new age of technology.         


[This appeared in Gentry and Gentry South Bay, May 2008.  Gordon Moore is the subject of a separate article, “An American Epic”.]

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