50th anniversary of the IC

On Friday the IEEE unveiled a plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first practical IC, which was created at Fairchild’s original building at 844 Charleston Road in Mountain View (it’s just off San Antonio Road near 101). The plaque was unveiled by Margaret Abe-Koga, the mayor of Mountain View who wasn’t even born back then.

The story of the founding of Fairchild is pretty well known. Shockley invented the transistor at Bell Labs in New Jersey (for which he eventually won the Nobel prize in physics) and then moved to California to commercialize it. This was truly the founding of Silicon Valley.

Unable to persuade any of his colleagues to join him, he hired young graduates. But his abrasive management style and his decision to discontinue research into silicon-based transistors led eight key engineers, the “traitorous eight,” to leave and form Fairchild Semiconductor (Fairchild Camera and Instrument put up the money).

Two of the eight, Gordon Moore and Jay Last spoke at the ceremony that commemorated the work of two more of the eight, Robert Noyce and Jean Hoerni. Jean invented the planar process that was (and is) the foundation of integrated circuit manufacture and Robert Noyce took it and ran with it to create the first true integrated circuit in 1959, 50 years ago. Both Robert Noyce and Jean Hoerni unfortunately passed away in 1990 and 1997 respectively.

Of course those are some famous names. Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore went on to co-found Intel and employee #3 was Andy Grove. If you drive down 101 past Montague Expressway, that huge Intel building to the east side of the freeway is the RNB, the Robert Noyce Building.

After the unveiling of the plaque, the commemoration moved to the Computer History Museum. If you’ve never been there then it is highly recommended. Right now they also have a working version of Babbage’s Difference Engine, one of only two in existence. In his lifetime, Babbage never completed the manufacture but about twenty years ago the Science Museum in London (also highly recommended for a visit) decided to build an example to see if it worked. They got it finished in 1991, a month before the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth. Nathan Myhrvold took some of his Microsoft millions, and commissioned a second one for his living room. But right now it is in the computer history museum and you can see it in action if you live locally.

So 50 years ago this year was the first integrated circuit and so the first fab in silicon valley. In one of those nice closed circles, earlier this year the last fab in Silicon Valley closed. To close the circle even more, it was an Intel fab. It was transitioned last year from manufacturing to process development and is now finally closing/closed. It was a 50 year circle from the first fab to the last in the valley. Of course this is really a success story. Silicon Valley is a poor place for a fab: land is limited and costly, the ground shakes from time to time, there is a lot of traffic vibration and, as fabs got insanely expensive the California tax environment is unfavorable.

In any case, the high value part of building semiconductors is not the manufacturing part. As it says on the back of the iPhone, “Designed by Apple in California and manufactured in China.” Semiconductors are also often like that, “Designed by xx in Silicon Valley and manufactured in Taiwan.” Much better than the other way round.

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