The Would Be Gods

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Upside, October 2001

In discussing the development of semiconductors in Silicon Valley, many roadsoriginate with Arnold Beckman, the man who hired William Shockley away from BellLabs and brought him to the San Francisco Bay area to establish the ShockleySemiconductor Labs of Beckman Instruments (now Beckman Coulter). Semiconductorshad been around for several decades – odd materials that had the ability toconduct electricity under certain conditions. They are, Gordon Moore says,”halfway between insulators and metals. The wonderful thing about semiconductorsis that you can control the amount of their connectivity through introducingimpurities.”

Bell Labs, as the research arm for the Bell companies – owners ofmillions of electromechanical relays across the nation used in its telephoneswitching networks – was one of the most interested parties in semiconductors andtheir ability to conduct electrical currents. Bell executives had the foresightto hope that, one day, Bell could replace its troublesome relays with morereliable devices made of semiconductors. Bell had also laid underwater cablesthat used vacuum tubes for repeaters at regular intervals, making the cablesunreliable. So Bell funded a semiconductor laboratory in Murray Hill, N.J., whichis where Shockley, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen produced the work thatreceived the Nobel Prize in 1956 “for their researches on semiconductors and theirdiscovery of the transistor effect.”

As the head of one of the country’s leading scientific companies,Beckman understood the importance of semiconductors. Hence, he hired the greatestname in the industry to establish his company in that field, setting Shockley upin his own research and development facility. Although Beckman Instruments wasbased in Los Angeles, Shockley’s new labs were set up near Palo Alto, CA, becauseShockley’s mother lived there.

The Shockley Semiconductor Labs were short-lived, however. With theexception of Robert Noyce, none of the key engineers working there could stomachShockley for long, despite his unquestionable technical brilliance. In 1957, thelabs’ senior members selected Gordon Moore to contact Beckman and have Shockleymoved aside as leader of the labs. When that didn’t work, seven men – andeventually Noyce, making it eight – left the company. Moore still remembers thenight he drove to Jean Hoerni’s house to make the call to Beckman and also that itdid little good.

In the end, Shockley may be most remembered for hiring the talentedgroup and, some say, subsequently driving them away to join FairchildSemiconductor. Moore, one of the “Traitorous Eight” who left to form Fairchild’ssemiconductor operation and eventually become one of Intel’s founders, remembersthe evening he was sitting at home in Maryland, when the phone rang, and the voiceon the other end said, “This is Shockley.” That’s about all I remember about thecall, but I took the job he offered. I had been doing pretty much esoteric work atJohns Hopkins University, looking at the spectroscopy of metals. I didn’t know thefirst thing about semiconductors, but Shockley thought he needed a chemist. Noneof us knew his reputation as a manager at that time, but maybe we should havesuspected, as none of his guys from Bell Labs were joining him in California.”The son of a local policeman in the small coastal town of Pescadero, CA – directlywest of what would become Silicon Valley – Moore wanted to return to California.Shockley’s reputation and the incredible wage being offered, $750 a month, wereall it took to bring Moore home, where he became one of the formative members ofthe group that would eventually make Santa Clara, CA, “Silicon Valley.”

By the time Moore was on his way to California, commercialsemiconductor manufacturing was underway in Boston, Phoenix, Dallas, and NewJersey. The establishment of the Shockley Semiconductor Labs was the first steptoward adding the Bay area to that list. Many books have been written about thesemiconductor industry’s founding, with Charlie Sporck’s book excerpted in ourAugust issue as one of the few firsthand accounts (see “The Birth of Fairchild

Semiconductor,” August 2001, page 60). Trying to capture the semiconductor storyfor this issue of Upside meant tracking down the people who created thesemiconductor industry – a nerve-wracking process. Noyce, eulogized in Upside(July 1990), was one of the first of his generation to pass away. But many of theother larger-than-life people from Fairchild Semiconductor – Eugene Kleiner, JayLast, Pierre Lamond, Julius Blank, Andrew Grove, and Moore – are still around toprovide insight into what it was like when the semiconductor industry was firstbeing created. For this special issue, I particularly wanted to answer thequestion of whether such a technological discontinuity as the semiconductorrevolution will ever appear again. The answer lies in a thorough understanding ofhow the Valley became “siliconized.”

Just as Shockley knew the labs would need chemists, he knew thatmechanical engineers would be required, so he hired two: Blank and Kleiner. Blankwas a classic engineer and had worked at Babcock & Wilcox, where he designed andbuilt the huge boilers used in power plants and utility companies. As a boy,Blank attended a technical high school in Brooklyn, where he learned the craft ofbuilding things. In 1943, the U.S. Army grabbed the young man, sent him tocollege, had him repair military aircraft, and then sent him to Europe to fight inWorld War II battles such as the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. By the time Blankreturned to the States in 1946 to finish his bachelor’s degree in mechanicalengineering, he already had a lifetime’s worth of practical experience. Then itwas off to Babcock & Wilcox, Goodyear Aircraft, and, finally, Western Electric,which set him to work with germanium phototransistors, among other devices, tofigure out how to replace its mechanical relays.

In 1956, Dean Knapic, a Western Electric alumnus, offered Blank ajob at Shockley Semiconductor Labs. After traveling to Palo Alto to beinterviewed by Shockley, Blank, like all the other original employees, underwentlengthy psychological testing – possibly an artifact of Arnold Beckman’sexperience in one of his firm’s plants in Los Angeles, where an employee wentberserk and stabbed a co-worker to death, or a result of Shockley’s unorthodoxviews on personnel practices. Despite the days-long grilling, $10,000 a year plusmoving expenses looked pretty good.

Blank and Kleiner shared all of the mechanical-engineering work atthe company, which was housed in a small stucco building at 391 South CharlestonRoad in Mountain View, CA (now a chair shop that bears an incongruous brass plaqueidentifying it as the birthplace of Silicon Valley).

Blank’s first assignment was to build a crystal grower. Blank knewnothing about semiconductors. Fortunately, Leo Valdez and Victor Jones, hired byShockley to actually grow the crystals, shared what they knew about the type ofequipment they needed, and Blank went to work. “That’s what it was like then.Bobby Noyce would walk in and say, ‘I want you to melt some copper on this part.’Really vague instructions were the order of the day. I would do that, and thentake it in to him. He’d look at it and tell me how to change it, or make someother suggestions, and we would go back and forth like that, making things up,”Blank recalls.

Despite the lack of direction, Blank loved the work. After hejoined Shockley Semiconductor Labs, Noyce, Moore, Last, Kleiner, and Hoerniappeared in short order. Blank remembers the group as a bunch of 20-somethingswho liked to hang out together and see each other socially. He remembers theentire year and a half at Shockley Semiconductor Labs as an exciting time,ordering power upgrades, phone systems, air conditioners, and the radio-frequency(RF) oscillators needed to melt silicon. An indication of how Blank was regardedby his colleagues is the fact that Blank was nominated to recontact Beckman, afterMoore’s first attempt, about removing Shockley. “At first, it appeared I wassuccessful,” Blank says. Beckman endowed Shockley with a teaching chair atStanford University that kept the good doctor out of the men’s hair. Teaching, inaddition to Shockley’s speaking and travel demands after winning the Nobel Prize,initially seemed to have solved the issue. After a while, however, with Shockley

coming back from trips and ordering entire projects restarted, it was clear thatthe problems would not be resolved. There was also Shockley’s single-mindedpursuit of the four-layer diode, perhaps left over from his days at Bell Labs,while many of the others thought silicon transistors were the direction theyshould be headed in.

Eugene Kleiner – co-founder, many years later, of the venturecapital firm Kleiner Perkins – was another of Shockley’s early hires. Kleiner wasan immigrant from Europe. After leaving Vienna, Austria, he attended secondaryschool in New York. He then took work as a factory machinist, but, like so manyof the remarkable men in this issue, he was drafted into the military. After thewar, Kleiner earned a bachelor’s degree from the Polytechnic University of NewYork and a master’s in mechanical engineering from New York University. He taughtengineering for a short while and then joined Western Electric, where he worked inthe morass of the Bell system’s relays and switches. Kleiner remembers Shockleyas a charming person, a fascinating conversationalist, and, by reputation, one ofthe stars of Bell Labs.

Reconciling that impression of Shockley with the small, inadequate,and dirty building that Shockley had leased to start the company was the first ofmany events informing Kleiner that Shockley’s technical brilliance was not matchedby practical experience. Like Blank, Kleiner’s first assignment was to build acrystal grower. It was this experience that brought Shockley down to earth inKleiner’s eyes. “I didn’t know anything about growing crystals and [knew] nothingabout furnaces. So I asked Shockley, but he didn’t know. He just gave me advice,often the wrong advice, so our first device for growing crystals was amonstrosity. It didn’t work. It was so large that we had to raise the roof of thebuilding. It never worked. So I went next door to Sears, Roebuck and Co. andbought one of those large standing drill presses, and it had most of the featureswe needed. We had to change some things and add some things, but it formed thebasis of our second and successful, crystal grower.”

Then it was time to build a furnace, which entailed a similarlyunsuccessful set of experiences. Still, “working with that team of men, Moorefigured out the dispersal of gaseous materials,” Kleiner recalls. (Moore was anexpert glassblower. He actually created, by hand, the tube jungles in which gaseswere distributed, separated, and combined, thus allowing for single-stepproduction of doubly diffused transistors.) “Knapic. Blank. It was a beautifulteam. It was exciting,” Kleiner continues. Once built, the furnace had to be kepton 24 hours a day. Kleiner and Blank, who lived close to the company, came inevery couple of hours during weekends to check on the relatively delicate device.Kleiner remembers, 40 years later, that it was his wife who kept him going duringthose times (she also sang madrigals with Noyce at parties and social events).More importantly, she wrote a letter to Hayden, Stone & Co. seeking money forseveral of the “Fairchild Eight” – the letter that found its way to Arthur Rockand convinced Rock to find funding for Fairchild Semiconductor and, later,Teledyne Semiconductor and Intel. It was “one of the great letters of all time,”Kleiner muses, thinking of that lovely unsung heroine.

Jay Last, now retired and living in Los Angeles, left Silicon Valleyearly on to become a vice president at Teledyne, where he helped Henry Singletonbuild that company from a single division to over 150 divisions. Last, a quietelectronics and optical engineer, worked closely with Noyce, and is responsiblefor much of the early manufacturing infrastructure of semiconductor technology.Surrounded by his collection of African art and the products of his publishingcompany, Last is, in many ways, uncomfortable sharing his life with strangers. Hisyears of military research and development have remained a closed book long afterhis retirement. And the subject of Shockley is one that, despite the passage of 40years, is not casually remembered.

Still, if you catch his attention, Last will explain that much ofwhat helped build the semiconductor industry came out of Fairchild Semiconductor:improvements in growing silicon ingots and diffusing exotic materials across the