Integrated Circuit Celebrates 50th Birthday

Technology.am (May 10, 2009) —It was in 1959 that the men of Fairchild Semiconductor first created the planar integrated circuit. On Friday, two of the most famous surviving men of that team, Gordon Moore and Jay Last, were honored by 400 friends, former colleagues, and fans for their roles in creating the modern structure of the integrated circuit that today powers everything from the pocket-size iPhone to Google’s giant server farms.

icJohn Hollar, CEO of the Computer History Museum, said “It became the electronics technology through which we have created our contemporary digital world. It is indispensable to modern life.”

“It’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed. The reality of today is beyond our wildest imaginations of those days.” said Jay Last.

Moore and Last, both 80, were part of a group of eight men who famously left Shockley Semiconductor to strike out on their own and form Fairchild Semiconductor, which became “the Google of its day,” according to Leslie Berlin, Silicon Valley archivist for Stanford University.

The contributions of Jean Hoerni and Robert Noyce, both deceased, were also recounted by Berlin, and historian and author Christophe Lecuyer.

But Moore and Last, who both gave thoughtful, lighthearted speeches, were humble about the recognition being bestowed upon them for their work that began in the late 1950s.

“It’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed,” Last said. “The reality of today is beyond our wildest imaginations of those days.”

Back then, they were racing against time and Texas Instruments, which was also working on building its own integrated circuit and would eventually win the patent on it after a long, drawn-out legal battle once the planar integrated circuit was built. It wasn’t immediately obvious back in those days what the impact would be.

“It was a nice addition to the product line, but it wasn’t completely clear it was going to be revolutionary,” Moore said.

Moore went on to treat the audience–many of them his former colleagues at Fairchild and Intel, which he co-founded–to a brief history of how the IC came to be.

He recounted the days when the eight of them, including Noyce and Hoerni, staged a mutiny at Shockley and struck out on their own, determined to find an existing company that wanted to use them to build out a semiconductor business.

Moore said the men, most of whom were in their late 20s at the time, weren’t sure how to go about it, so they opened The Wall Street Journal and circled the names of 30 companies they thought might be interested in their services. None bit. But when they met Sherman Fairchild, who owned Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation, their luck changed.

In just three years, the men of Fairchild Semiconductor had figured out the structure that would shape the commercial and consumer electronics revolution about to unfold over the next half century. Their achievement of building the planar IC can be simplified this way, as Last put it: “We put all the devices on the same piece of silicon, connected them altogether, and isolated them one from another.”

But they made other indispensable choices. For example, they decided to keep a layer of silicon oxide on top of the wafer, thanks to Hoerni’s insistence, at a time when that went against most accepted knowledge in the industry. Silicon’s potential seemed limited at the time, except in special applications, Last remembered. The Fairchild men also paved the way for the mass production of chips by building increasingly small devices on increasingly large arrays.

Moore also had another lasting impact on technology, thanks to an article he wrote in 1965. In it, he laid out his assertion that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits would double every year for the foreseeable future. We know it today as Moore’s Law, and it is applied broadly to the increasing capability of most electronic devices.

While Moore joked that it’s “obviously as important as Newton’s Law,” he did acknowledge that at some point, it will no longer hold true. “You get to the point where you can’t shrink things anymore. But that won’t stop innovation.”

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