The Real Revolution

This appeared in Gentry and Gentry South Bay, February 2008. 

MicroElectronics Group

The recent celebration of Fairchild’s 50th anniversary commemorated not just the founding of a company but an epochal turning point in human evolution.

1957 was in many ways the first year of our time.  The launch of Sputnik put humanity in space, a leap comparable to sea creatures reconnoitering the land some 400 million years ago.  The National Guard escorted nine black students into Little RockCentralHigh School and integration in America became inevitable.  And with the publication of Kerouac’s On the Road, the media discovered the Beat Generation, harbingers of the countercultural 60s.  But the real revolution was in the 50s.  Beneath the surface of hula hoops and Ozzie and Harriet was a groundswell of innovative dissent—artists and entertainers like Alan Ginsberg, Jackson Pollack, Pete Seeger, Charlie Parker, Marlon Brando, and Lenny Bruce, intellectuals and reformers like David Riesman, Betty Friedan, Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King.  Yet the most significant development of the year—perhaps of the century—bore no relation to these people.  The real and enduring revolution was rooted in an obscure event, unnoted at the time, but destined to compare with the invention of the wheel, agriculture, or writing. 

On September 19, 1957, eight young scientists and engineers launched Fairchild Semiconductor, the company that would develop the planar transistor and the integrated circuit, spawning Silicon Valley.  It was an event as seismic as the first underground atomic test, occurring that same day.  For the legacy of Fairchild lies not only in the home computer, the internet, and the whole digital revolution on which nearly all technologies now rest, but in futures unimagined—worlds as different from 1957 as that year from 1450, the year of the printing press.  Ironically, the most radical departure came not from a self-indulgent youth culture, but from the very engineering types they so disdained.  As Gordon Moore, one of the eight Fairchild founders, once noted, “We were the real revolutionists.”

The Long View

The founding of Fairchild heralded what will be seen in centuries to come as an epochal turning point in human evolution.  In the long term, the digital revolution will free us from the bonds of time and place, enabling technologies and lifestyles undreamt of today.  The Fairchild Eight take their place in history with Gutenberg, Galileo, Morse, or Edison.  The legacy of Silicon Valley will stand with that of the NileValley, the voyages of exploration, and the scientific revolution.  And all the original Silicon Valley companies trace back through two or three degrees of separation to the mother of them all, Fairchild Semiconductor. 

Who, then, are the Fairchild Eight and why aren’t they household names?  There are a number of related reasons why Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, Jean Hoerni, Jay Last, Julie Blank, Vic Grinich, Gene Kleiner, and Sheldon Roberts are not widely known.  The first is that the long-term, world-altering potential of any invention is rarely a common perception at the time.  There is a story about the Chief of the British Postal Service, who was told of Alexander Bell’s invention of the telephone and was basically unimpressed.  “Americans,” he said, “have need of the telephone, but we do not.  We have plenty of messenger boys.”  The mayor of a large American city, on the other hand, was wildly enthusiastic about the telephone:  “I can see a time,” he said, “when every city will have one.”  We tend to overestimate what we can do in the immediate future and underestimate the effects of change over the long term.  This is because imagination extrapolates in a straight line, while real events develop exponentially, like compound interest.  One need only look at the history of science fiction to see how often projections were set too early in the future while falling way short of the eventual reality.

A second reason why the world has yet to elevate the founders of Fairchild to Edison-like fame is that we have become inured to the accelerating pace of life-altering innovation.  For almost all of human existence, down to the time that British postal chief was born, a message could not move any faster than a sailing ship or a running horse.  Then in little more than one lifetime, the world was transformed beyond their imagination—from steamships to the spaceships, telegraph to television, slide rule to supercomputer, ink press to internet.  My great-grandmother, who died in 1957, a few days after the founding of Fairchild, saw the coming of the telephone, the phonograph, and electric light and power while in her teens.  Movies and the horseless carriage arrived in her thirties, the first radio broadcasts in her fifties.  She lived to see television, computers, antibiotics, and the atomic bomb.  Born under candlelight when Abraham Lincoln was in office, she had watched the modern world unfold.  On the night she died, the first man-made satellite passed silently among the stars.  Never again, perhaps, will one lifetime see so much fundamental change.  Though the changes are now more numerous, they are essentially refinements on things known to my great-grandmother.

Except for the microprocessor.

There is a kind of common sense, ingrained in us over millions of years, about what is possible and impossible.  The crowds of skeptics who came to scoff at the Wright brothers gaped in wonder when their machine suddenly rose from the Earth.  Human flight—the ultimate barrier, the very definition of the impossible—had been achieved.  When Edison demonstrated the first phonograph at the National Academy of Sciences, the doors had to be taken off their hinges to accommodate the crush of the curious.  Congressmen assembled in the Capitol to hear the talking machine; and President Hayes detained Edison at the White House until 3:30 A.M. 

For those born in the twentieth century, fundamental breakthroughs no longer inspire that kind of awe.  Such reverence seldom extends to later innovations based on the earlier breakthrough.  Television, for example, seemed only the inevitable extension of movies and radio.  The cluster of “impossibilities” witnessed by my great-grandmother was the result of two macro-breakthroughs, the shift from steam to electric power and the convergence of technology and science.  In the steam age, machines were but an extension of the larger muscles.  Early in the electrical age, on the other hand, delicate contrivances began to do things that no quantity of men could do, becoming not only extensions of the finer muscles but of the eye, ear, and even the brain itself.  They seemed at first to have obscure, magical powers—the ability to duplicate a human voice, capture living motion on a two‑dimensional surface, or dispel darkness at a finger’s touch.  The only comparable reaction in our time was to the walk on another world.  Yet in the long view, the microprocessor that grew out of Fairchild’s planar transistors and integrated circuits was a technological leap more revolutionary than the phonograph, the airplane, or even spaceflight if extrasolar planets forever lie countless lifespans away.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the Fairchild Eight, predicted that the number of transistors that could be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit would continue to double every year.  What came to be known as “Moore’s Law” has remained true for more than half a century (though the doubling period has settled at just under two years) and may persist until we encounter the Singularity—the point at which total computational power will reach levels that will appear infinite.  Moore’s Law has applied to almost every measure of digital capability—processing speed, memory capacity, even the resolution of digital cameras.  Meanwhile, the cost of the transistor has seen a 16 million-to-one decrease, with all the interconnections thrown in free.  No other technology has had such a decrease in the cost of its product.

Moore’s educated guess is that more than a quintillion transistors are produced annually, more than the number of printed characters in all the newspapers, magazines, books, photocopies, and computer printouts; and they are sold at less than the cost of a character in the Sunday New York Times.  A modern microprocessor may contain a billion transistors.  A gigahertz processor experiences in less than a second the equivalent of all the thoughts we have in a lifetime.  And there will soon be 100 million such processors.  Today nearly everyone owns dozens of these tiny computers whether they know it or not, from cars and appliances to phones and audiovisual equipment.  They are ubiquitous and spreading exponentially into new fields.  “The microprocessor is the most complicated mass-produced item ever built,” wrote Silicon Valley author Michael Malone, “each with as many architectural features as a medium-sized city and the product of programs as complicated as the Manhattan Project.”  In 20 years there will be as many silicon gates in a supercomputer as there are neurons in the human brain.  Link it via the Internet to millions of other computers around the world,” says Malone, and “the great cyberhomunculus rears its silicon and fiber head.”    

We will soon live in a world without distance, without closed societies, and perhaps, in some far future, without cities.  In a global village, large concentrations of population could become obsolete.  It is possible that human interaction will be so different in another century that the resulting social structures will be unrecognizable.  The future of these technologies appears boundless.  And it all stems from the Fairchild Eight.

The Google of Its Day

One day in July, 1957, Sheldon Roberts got into his family station wagon and drove from house to house on the SouthPeninsula, picking up the future founders of Fairchild Semiconductor, squeezed shoulder to shoulder for the hour’s ride to the Clift Hotel in San Francisco.  Meeting in the Redwood Room with two bankers, they all signed ten one-dollar bills as their contracts with each other.  The eight engineers and scientists, the oldest aged 32 and the rest under 30, had been working at Shockley Semiconductor in Mountain View under Nobelist William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor.  Shockley’s paranoid, micromanaging personality, which extended to lie detector tests and Caine Mutiny type investigations, compelled them to defect and found their own company.  Shockley called them the “traitorous eight.” 

Needing corporate backing, they were rebuffed by 35 companies—partly because no procedure existed for a company within a company—until millionaire inventor and playboy Sherman Fairchild, of Fairchild Camera and Instrument in New York, invested $1.5 million in return for an option to buy the company within eight years.  Since there were no venture capitalists in those days, their negotiations with Fairchild Camera set a precedent as one of the first venture capitalist agreements on the West Coast.  The Traitorous Eight set up shop in a two-story warehouse building at 844 Charleston Road in Palo Alto, now designated as California Historical Landmark number 1000.

 The timing was fortuitous.  Not only was there a growing demand for transistors to replace vacuum tubes, but the space race that followed the launch of Sputnik created a need for small computers that could be installed in rockets.  (Tube computers like ENIAC, developed during World War II, were 100 feet long, ten feet high, and required 18,000 vacuum tubes, which could heat the room to 120 degrees.  With today’s microprocessors, ENIAC could be mounted on a postage stamp.)  Thus much of Fairchild’s initial work was for the Department of Defense.  The high reliability requirements of programs such as the Minuteman missile had the added advantage of improving Fairchild’s manufacturing standards.  As a result, the failure rate of the company’s first transistors dropped from 0.1 percent per thousand hours in 1959 to .00009 percent in 1961, an average of less than one failure in 10,000 years.  With the most dependable devices in the industry, Fairchild became the first successful semiconductor company in what was to become Silicon Valley. 

Almost immediately after launching the company, they received a large order from IBM to develop a more reliable transistor.  Eschewing germanium in favor of silicon, they proceeded to pioneer a new form of mass producing transistors using a double diffusion technique, introducing the more rugged “mesa” transistor.  The mesa process allowed multiple transistors on a single silicon wafer; transistors were previously manufactured one at a time.

To fill IBM’s order, the eight research scientists had to become production engineers, developing all the basic processes still used today.  They had to work out their own financing, equip a building, invent the product, and invent the whole process—how to make the diffusion procedure and wafer contacts reliable, how to do testing, how to package, how to grow crystals without dislocations, develop step and repeat cameras (they were first to use lithography in printing transistors), and numerous other needs—all in 10 months.  In August, 1958, they shipped 100 transistors to IBM at $150 apiece in a  Brillo box that Jay Last picked up at a supermarket.

No sooner had they met these challenges than occasional transistors began to fail mysteriously.  After months of inquiry, they discovered that stray particles sometimes shorted the junctions.  To solve the problem, Jean Hoerni devised an ingenious and highly complex “planar” process that protected the circuits from contamination.  The result was an ultra-reliable transistor.  It is likely that the planar transistor, a truly radical turning point in the otherwise seamless evolution of technology, will one day be seen as a seed no less significant than the first writing or metal casting.  Enabling mass production of integrated circuits, it spawned microprocessors and the digital revolution, the future of which promises a transformation equal to that produced by any invention in history of our species.

Bob Noyce soon realized that the planar method allowed a complete circuit—including transistors, diodes, capacitors, and resistors—to be put on a single chip.  Prior to this integrated circuit, individual transistors had to be wired together by hand until you ended up with a little panel that looked like a map of Massachusetts.  And the wiring inside a computer was a mass of spaghetti.  Though Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments had jerry-rigged an integrated circuit in germanium a few months earlier, it was Hoerni’s silicon planar process, Noyce’s design, and Jay Last’s two-year fabrication project that produced the first reliable, mass-produced integrated circuit.  It was Fairchild’s second breathtaking advance in the space of a year.  From the integrated circuit would come endless possibilities, from moonwalks and robots to fields yet unimagined.

Among their other innovations, Fairchild’s entrepreneur engineers (a new concept in itself) developed new marketing styles and mass production techniques adapted from the electrical and automotive industries.  They were early outsourcers, setting up plants in Hong Kong and South Korea, a move quickly imitated by other major semiconductor firms.  The Google of its day, Fairchild was one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S.  In 1965, the stock rose faster than any other on the New York Exchange, shooting from 27 to 144, leaping 50 points in October alone.  In ten years sales rose from a few thousand dollars a year to $130 million, and the number of employees rose from the original eight to twelve thousand.  Companies that did not readily adopt Fairchild’s innovations were out of business by the early 60s.

A Better World

Tom Wolfe tells the story of how John Carter, CEO of Fairchild Camera, the parent company, came to Palo Alto one day in the back of a black Cadillac limousine with a chauffeur in full uniform.  Not only had no one at Fairchild Semiconductor ever seen a limousine out front before, but the driver stayed out there for almost eight hours, doing nothing, as Wolfe notes,

but waiting for a man who was somewhere inside.  John Carter was having a terrific chief executive officer’s time for himself.  He took a tour of the plant, he held conferences, he looked at figures, he nodded with satisfaction, he beamed his urbane Fifty-seventh Street Biggie CEO charm.  And the driver sat out there all day engaged in the task of supporting a visored cap with his head.  People started leaving their workbenches and going to the front windows just to take a look at this phenomenon.  It seemed that bizarre.  It wasn’t that this little peek at the New York-style corporate high life was unusual out here in the brown hills of the Santa ClaraValley.  It was that it seemed terribly wrong.

Noyce, considered the leader of the group, rejected the East Coast feudal approach to organization.  Fairchild’s laissez-faire management styles, flat organizational structures, autonomous research groups, and granting of stock options to employees would become characteristic of Silicon Valley.  Not only were there no limousines, there were no baronial office suites, no reserved parking spaces, and no rules for dress.  In the laid back atmosphere of work bays and cramped office cubicles, the décor was Avant Warehouse.  And there was a tolerance for failure that had much to do with their success in a world of fast-moving technology.  Almost everyone was under 30.  Someone just out of graduate school might find himself in charge of a major project with no one looking over his shoulder.  In the exhilaration of being young, free, and out on the silicon frontier, they internalized the goals of the venture, working long hours and weekends.  The open work environment and free flow of ideas, everyone inventing how everything was to be done, was reminiscent of Edison’s legendary Menlo Park lab.  A new employee once approached Edison and humbly asked what laboratory rules he should observe.  Edison spat in the middle of the floor and yelled, “Hell!  There ain’t no rules around here!  We are tryin’ to accomplish sompthin!”

Nor were founders of Fairchild in it to make a lot of money.  They were willing to take risks on new technologies because, as Moore put it, the idea “was interesting and exciting.”  They believed in the technology—that they were constructing a better world.  Almost everyone involved in those early Silicon Valley startups came from middle or working class families.  When Bob Noyce had his fourth child, he bought a bigger house, but the thought of moving to any of the “best” neighborhoods in Palo Alto, Atherton, or Hillsborough never crossed his mind.  He found a house in Los Altos Hills with a wide view, commensurate perhaps with his own broad perspective.      

Noyce grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, founded in 1854 by Josiah Grinnell, who sought to create a midwestern Protestant version of John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” a moral example to the world.  It was to Grinnell that Horace Greely had uttered the words “Go west, young man!”  Tom Wolfe has suggested that Noyce, the son of a Congregational minister, took the Dissenting Protestant aura of that corn belt, clapboard town—the work ethic, aversion to ostentation, and idealistic sense of a common struggle against harsh odds—to a new frontier in the far west, leading the world “into the twenty-first century, across the electronic grid and into space.”

Renaissance Redux

Due largely to a lack of perspective on the part of the parent company, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, Fairchild Semiconductor was eventually absorbed by National Semiconductor, the buildings torn down, and all traces removed.  The last of the founders to leave were Noyce and Moore, who launched Intel in 1968.  In the two decades following the birth of Fairchild, its founders and employees went on to create no fewer than 65 spinoff companies, including Xicor, AMD, National Semiconductor, Teledyne, Kleiner Perkins, and LSI Logic.  The emigration of these new entrepreneurs (dubbed the “Fairchildren”) occurred partly because of the impossibility of exploiting all the new technical avenues involved in Fairchild’s production.  Thus the founders encouraged some of their technicians to establish their own companies, making glass capillaries, bonding machines, or diffusion furnaces.  These enterprises seeded the new venture capital business and the subsequent proliferation of startups.

In his famous letter of self-recommendation to the Duke of Milan, Leonardo da Vinci presented a long list of examples from his vast sum of inventions—from flying machines, bridges, aqueducts, rockets, and robots to a submarine, horseless carriage, and studies ranging from anatomy to zoology.  As an afterthought he added that he did sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay; and also some painting.  Yet, watching a documentary on da Vinci, what struck me even more than the man himself was the nature of the historical moment in which he lived.  There was an aura of rebirth and renewal, like the scent of a crisp, dew-laden dawn.  In that fresh morning of the modern age, almost any pursuit one touched was vibrant with possibility. 

We now live in just such a time and place.  Silicon Valley has not only been the greatest creator of new wealth and employment in human history, it has redefined our daily lives and how we see the world.  And if we can’t go home again in the regressive manner of 60s dissent, the real revolutionaries have set a course for the future that may fulfill such visions while avoiding the price, for the founders of Fairchild Semiconductor spawned one of the greatest technological and social transformations in the evolution of our species. 

[This appeared in Gentry magazine, February 2008] 


  1. Reid Isaksen says

    I grew up in Palo Alto while all this was happening. Thank you for the wonderful essay on silicon valley.

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