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Tech Life

Silicon Genesis: Stanford’s Oral Histories of the Semiconductor Industry

A project that began in 1995, but is still continuing, is sharing the history of Silicon Valley online with new generations of geeks. Stanford University's "Silicon Genesis" is a collection of over 100 oral histories and interviews with the people who created Silicon Valley's semiconductor industry.
May 5th, 2019 6:00am by
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A project that began in 1995, but is still continuing, is sharing the history of Silicon Valley online with new generations of geeks. Stanford University’s “Silicon Genesis” is a collection of over 100 oral histories and interviews with the people who created Silicon Valley’s semiconductor industry.

The site’s “About” page begins by acknowledging the team of engineers that built the world’s first commercially-produced silicon transistor. Led by William Shockley (who had won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956), that group of engineers “spread out across the Valley to pursue their ideas,” including the eight key Shockley employees led by Dr. Robert Noyce who’d founded Fairchild Semiconductor.

Four decades later, the inspiration for “Silicon Genesis” came from Rob Walker, an alumnus of both Fairchild and Intel (as well as one of the founders of LSI Logic).

“Rob recognized that if the remarkable stories of these pioneers were not captured for the benefit of future public access, they would be untold and lost forever,” the site noted.

Stories of Pioneers

Silicon Destiny by Rob Walker with Nancy Tersini - screenshot of book cover (via Google Books) target=Starting in 1995, Walker began working with the Silicon Valley Archives in the Stanford University Libraries to record oral histories — but he’d already become active in cultural preservation. In 1992 Walker wrote “Silicon Destiny: The Story of Application Specific Integrated Circuits and LSI Logic Corporation.” Walker’s book acknowledges “all the industry veterans who agreed to recount the story of the ASICs phenomenon,” calling their words “the heart of this book.”

Walker shared his interviews and documentation with the Stanford libraries’ Department of Special Collections, with Silicon Genesis serving as “an extension of Rob’s efforts to document the history of Silicon Valley’s semiconductor industry.” The project’s site also notes that for the next 17 years, from 1995 to 2012 — up until he was 78 years old — Rob was their lead interviewer.

You can also access “the Rob Walker papers,” which includes manuals and minutes of meetings from Fairchild Semiconductor (along with research materials and other documents), plus material from LSI Logic and even the data from Walker’s research at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in the 1960s.

In his 1992 book, Walker wrote that the death of Bob Noyce “made all of us aware of our mortality… The pioneers of Silicon Valley are now in their fifties and sixties; we had better tell our story while we can.” Walker wanted to collect oral histories, he remembers in a 2005 announcement, and “I was overjoyed when I found Stanford felt the same way, and so we began a collaboration ”

Henry Lowood, the library system’s curator for History of Science and Technology Collection, adds that Walker “has access to a lot of people and can speak to them in a way that a historian can’t.”

That announcement also notes that the project also received some support from the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Glimpses of History

So what’s in the collection? There are some fascinating looks at what motivated these movers and shakers. In a 2011 interview with Toshiba Director Tsuyoshi Kawanishi, Walker remembers how back in 1981 LSI and Toshiba “worked together to the betterment of his giant Japanese company, and our tiny American startup.”

There’s also a revealing 2007 interview (credited to the Computer History Museum) with Morris Chang, the founder (and former CEO) of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s first and largest silicon foundry. Chang remembers his first 18 years in China, before moving to the U.S., as “war, poverty, injustice… So much resentment, so much hatred in a socially unjust environment. Now the personal lesson to me was, well, I needed to study hard and later on, work hard. And hope that there will be peace.”

 “If it hadn’t been for [Sherman Fairchild], I think we would’ve given up and probably there would be no silicon in Silicon Valley” — Arthur Rock

But one of the most remarkable recordings is the “Fairchild 50th anniversary panel” held in 2007. It begins with an introduction from John Hennessy, then the president of Stanford University and a Fellow of the Computer History Museum (as well as one of the original founders of MIPS, and a future chairman of Google parent company alphabet Inc.) Taking the stage, Hennessy introduces three members of the original founding team of Fairchild Semiconductor: Julius Blank, who “ran the Fab at Fairchild,” Jay Last, who directed the group producing the first integrated circuit, and Gordon Moore, who ran Fairchild’s R&D group (before leaving to co-found Intel with Bob Noyce in 1968).

Also present was Arthur Rock, who in 1957 was a freshly-minted Harvard MBA who became “instrumental” in Fairchild’s funding. Hennessy notes that Rock went on to fund one of Silicon Valley’s first venture capital firms, “and later became an early stage investor and board member at both Apple and Intel.”

William B. Shockley, Nobel Laureate in physics

Back in 1957, Santa Clara was still a mostly rural county with a population less than 500,000 — its nickname was still “the Valley of Heart’s Delight,” Hennessy tells the audience. But history was about to happen. “William Shockley was a great scientist and a great theoretician, but it’s clear, he was a terrible manager. And it was this latter characteristic that led eight colleagues, now known as the Fairchild Eight, to depart Shockley Semiconductor in 1957 to found Fairchild Semiconductor.” Shockley famously referred to them as “the Traitorous Eight.”

Moderator Leslie Berlin (a Stanford Ph.D. and biographer of Bob Noyce) asked for some personal insight: “how did you have the nerve to start your own company?” Gordon Moore remembered it as the only choice, adding “It was a heck of a lot easier then going out looking for another job frankly.” But he gives much credit to those two bankers whose early faith in them had proved pivotal — Arthur Rock and Bud Coyle. “If it hadn’t been, though, for the encouragement we got, as well as the financing from New York, I don’t think we ever would’ve done it because there wasn’t a venture capital at that time.”

Rock also told the audience he was turned down by 35 companies when he’d pitched their investing in the team — but eventually, his persistence had paid off, when someone suggested he talk to inventor Sherman Fairchild. “If it hadn’t been for Sherman, I think we would’ve given up and probably there would be no silicon in Silicon Valley.”

Fairchild got their first order from IBM in October of 1957 and shipped it in August of 1958. “In the meantime,” remembered Julius Blank, “we had to build a building, equip a Fab, buy equipment, invent the product, invent the process and learn how to test it and virtually make it and ship it, in what, uh, ten months?”

They’d also grown to 60 employees — but hearing them talk, you get the sense that it was a very unique moment in time.

Gordon Moore suggests that period created what’s still an often-overlooked legacy:

We had to develop all of the basic processes, the things that are still used today. We were the first ones to use lithography for printing semiconductor devices in transistors. We made the fusion our production process; it’d only been done in the laboratory before that. We had to do all of these things during that time and those are the bits and pieces that all of these spin-offs took as they set up companies around the area. So I think this collection of technology, bits and pieces was one of the most important contributions Fairchild made.

Silicon Genesis also has a set of filmed interviews called “The Fairchild Chronicles,” a three-hour documentary produced by Rob Walker. He told the Seattle Times that someday people will wonder about that historic moment in time — and “It will be nice someday to see who caused this revolution.”

Rock was also interviewed separately for Silicon Genesis back in 2002, and Gordon Moore was interviewed in 1995. Walker himself even shared some memories in 1998.

“It’s remarkable to me the things that people said on the record for the interviews,” Lowood says in the 2005 announcement, “and it’s a gold mine. We’ve had a couple of dissertations here use it extensively.” It cites the interviews’ use in the book “To the Digital Age: Research Labs, Start-Up Companies and the Rise of MOS Technology” by Ross Bassett of North Carolina State University.

Bassett says the interviews “literally put a face on the history of Silicon Valley.”

AlumRockViewSiliconValley_w by Elf via Wikipedia (Creative Commons)


Feature image: Silicon Valley facing southward towards downtown, San Jose, 2014, by Cool Caesar via Wikipedia, creative commons.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Genesis.
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