Semiconductor technology has enabled our computers, the Internet and 50-mpg cars. Your cell phone has more computational power than the computers did on the Apollo moon lander. Yet in spite of the semiconductor's seminal importance, semiconductor history is neglected by historians as "too new" and by the business media as "old news."
After Intel co-founder Bob Noyce's untimely death in 1990, I resolved to record the oral histories of semiconductor pioneers and get them archived somewhere until they were old enough to be deemed "historical."
I first approached my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, pitching the idea in 1994. The school informed me that while it had programs in women's studies, winemaking and AIDS, its was not interested in the oral history of electronics. Even today, its Regional Oral History Office lists only a single electronics-oriented entry in an archive of thousands: the recorded recollections of Ernest S. Kuh, a William S. Floyd, Jr., professor emeritus in engineering and professor in the Berkeley Graduate School Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences.
I had better luck at Stanford, where Henry Lowood (firstname.lastname@example.org), curator for the university's History of Science and Technology Collections, had started the "Stanford and the Silicon Valley" technology-oriented oral history project back in 1983.
In 1995, Henry and I hammered out our criteria for a new semiconductor series:
• videotaped and transcribed oral histories of semiconductor pioneers;
• no editing allowed;
• technologists, venture capitalists and legal specialists included;
• videotaped at subject's home, with spouse present when possible;
• archived in Stanford's special collections; and
• available online as the Silicon Genesis project.
To date, the collection consists of 68 oral histories. Sponsors include the Semiconductor Industry Association, Semiconductor Equipment Materials International and Walker Research Associates. Two documentaries have been produced from the collection: "The Fairchild Chronicles," available on the Silicon Genesis site, and "The Microprocessor Chronicles," available on DVD from Amazon.com.
The Computer History Museum also has an excellent collection of oral histories.
It's fortunate that these original histories are available, because various special interests are already spinning revisionist histories. In his book Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, Richard Tedlow quotes Grove describing Noyce as "absolutely inactive and paralyzed" and saying, "Both at Fairchild and Intel, I was not a Bob Noyce fan."
I made the following comment when interviewing [microprocessor pioneer] Federico Faggin in 1995: "I noticed a change at Intel in the culture. . . . when Noyce was very active in the company, there would be a meeting, and Andy Grove would start off on one of his diatribes and Noyce would say, 'Andy, shut up.' And that was sort of the end of it. . . . then when Noyce semi-retired and became vice chairman, a lot of the decency went out of the company."
In his book, Tedlow responds: "It is hard to believe that Noyce ever told Grove to 'shut up.' Noyce was not that direct. Furthermore, he needed Andy very much. But that [Walker's] remark is on the Web for anyone to see."
Of course, I was there, and Tedlow was not. Noyce said it.
Noyce is not the only target of special-interest revisionist histories. Bo Lojek wrote in his History of Semiconductor Engineering:
• "Gordon Moore, a lifelong and harsh critic of William Shockley, suggested that (Shockley) moved to the West Coast simply to be near to his mother. Nothing could be further from the truth."
• "Gordon Moore was one of the few that opposed [Jean] Hoerni's (planar process) idea."
• "Moore never did any work himself."
With all the nonsense coming forth, it's critical to save old business plans, newsletters, application notes and the like, and bequeath them to Stanford or the Computer History Museum--or they will be forgotten when you go.
Rob Walker is a consultant and ad hoc semiconductor historian. He held a variety of engineering positions at Fairchild Semiconductor in the early 1970s and managed its ASIC pioneering effort. In the late '70s, he became marketing communications manager at Intel. In 1981, he co-founded LSI Logic Corp. as its vice president of engineering. He has worked as a consultant since 1992.