Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Crystal Fire #10

Despite his immense contributions, Shockley never became the millionaire he wanted to be. He recruited first-rate scientists and engineers, but many defected to start or join other more successful firms.

Neither Brattain nor Bardeen had anywhere near Shockley’s visionary appreciation of the transistor’s vast commercial potential. Both continued doing basic research – Brattain at Bell Labs and Bardeen on a variety of solid state physics topics, especially superconductivity, for which he won a second Nobel Prize.

Almost as important as the transistor’s invention are the techniques crystal growing and zone refining, which allow fabricating large single crystals of ultra-pure silicon and germanium. Without these crystals, the industry would not exist.

The transistor led to a startling transformation of technology and even culture and the nature of work  – computers (main-frame and then personal), modern televisions, the iPod, and cell phones.

The new Information Age comes with its own distinct challenges to human freedom and livelihood. The crystal fire has brought with it an intensity and immediacy of life in which many things become obsolete soon. Some people unable or unwilling to deal with the unceasing change widens the divisions between different peoples on a national and global scale. For as fire illuminates, it also consumes.

Some other challenges not mentioned in the book are privacy, cyber-crime on a global scale, and the proliferation of advertising.

This is my final post about Crystal Fire.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Crystal Fire #9

The use of transistors expanded rapidly. But a worrisome cloud loomed on the horizon. As the number of components – transistors, diodes, resistors, capacitors, and connections – grew, the tedious task of assembly resulted in more defects. A few visionary engineers began looking for ways to fashion circuits from a single block of material. Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments was a pioneer in making such “integrated circuits.” Kilby’s first successful attempt used germanium, but then silicon came to be recognized and used by Kilby and others -- its advantages outweighing its disadvantages. Photolithography was used to define the circuit elements. The monolithic idea also arose in a different form at Fairchild Semiconductor. Both companies got patents for their products.

Shockley Transistor also invented a diode. When manufactured in quantity, too many diodes being defective led to market failure. Another Shockley attempt at transistors didn’t fare well either. Observing Shockley Transistor’s hemorrhaging cash and Fairchild’s great success, Arnold Beckman finally sought to sell off his transistor division and did.

These miniature circuits were a new and revolutionary advance. They are the ultimate practical expression of the theoretical insights of Bardeen, Shockley, Noyes and others, filtered and amplified by hundreds of scientists following in their footsteps. Many of the insights came at Bell Labs, Bell Labs and Western Electric were slow to to appreciate the value of monolithic integration. The phone company did not have the same pressing need for miniaturization that prodded the computer and military markets. Other firms, especially Texas Instruments and Fairchild, led the way.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Crystal Fire #8

William Shockley was surpassed by others for promotion to head all research, so he left Bell Labs. Bell’s top managers felt he was most effective where he was. Other top physicists such as John Bardeen had complained of Shockley’s ham-handed management. Shockley lacked the broader organization skills for directing a wider variety of work. He sought positions at other businesses and as a university professor, but then decided to devote his efforts to start his own company in the semiconductor industry. He finally met with someone who was willing to back him for the $1 million he sought. This was Arnold Beckman, both a good scientist and a successful business man. He was the head of Beckman Instruments, a company that specialized in making analytical instruments, such as a pH meter, for controlling production processes.

Shockley flew Los Angeles and met with Beckman for a week to discuss and then form a business plan. Beckman wanted the new company to be in the LA area, but Shockley wanted it near San Francisco and Stanford University. The provost and dean of engineering at Stanford helped Shockley convince Beckman that being near Stanford would be the best place for recruiting employees and having contacts for getting business.

Shockley first tried to recruit people from Bell Labs, but wasn’t successful. He then sought recruits from other firms such as Motorola, Philco, Raytheon, and Sylvania. He also sought young PhDs at top schools like Berkeley, Cal Tech, and MIT. When Beckman announced the launch of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, there were only four Ph.D. scientists and engineers on board. As the facilities were being made for the laboratory, he recruited Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. Noyce and Moore would later became the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel.

Beckman paid $25,000 to Western Electric to license patent rights in the transistor. Shockley’s contacts Bell Labs were helpful in gaining more info about production techniques. Still the going was tough. It was one thing to get methods working in the ultrahigh-technology environment of Bell Labs with its ample supply of first-rate scientists, engineers, and technicians and high-quality equipment. It was quite another to achieve the same results in the primitive surrounding of Shockley’s lab, even with the talent there.

In November, 1956 Shockley learned he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with Bardeen and Brattain. They all met in Stockholm to receive their award in December 1956. As 1957 began, his company was not doing well. It had been in operation more than a year, but was still struggling to produce anything for sale. Employee defections began. Beckman began to realize that Shockley was a brilliant physicist but a lousy business manager. Shockley devoted his efforts to developing one kind of transistor while Noyce, Moore, and others thought it was a waste of time. Several months later Noyce, Moore and six other of Shockley’s brightest recruits resigned to start their own company. They got financing from Fairchild Camera and Instruments and named their company Fairchild Semiconductor.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Crystal Fire #7

When Bell Labs hosted a symposium in 1951 about the transistors invented at Bell, absent was mention about the technologies involved in fabricating the gadgets. Bell’s subsidiary Western Electric began licensing rights to transistors for a fee. The art of fabricating them could not remain secret much longer. It was a challenge because the conflicting demands by the military for secrecy yet multiple suppliers and commercial openness were difficult to meet simultaneously. Anyway, Bell Labs invited licensees to visit its Western Electric plant in 1952, then published a comprehensive description of the state of the art of manufacturing transistors. One of the technologies then revealed was a powerful new method of purifying germanium, which Bell Labs had kept under wraps for almost two years at the military’s request.

Military applications provided an immediate market for transistors where cost was not a concern. Transistors were much more expensive than vacuum tubes. From 1953-55 almost half the revenue for transistors came from the military.

Other demand came from hearing aid manufacturers. Keeping with Alexander Graham bell’s devotion to the deaf and hard of hearing, AT&T extended royalty-free licenses to hearing aid manufacturers. Transistors were especially helpful for hearing aids. Ones that relied on vacuum tubes were bulky with a battery-powered amplifying unit worn around the waist. Also, the batteries were expensive.

Other demand came for use in pocket-size transistor radios. Texas Instruments was a leader in those, licensing the technology to other manufacturers in exchange for royalties. A Japanese company formed a subsidiary called Sony that became very successful making such radios.

Later in the 1950’s new kinds of transistors were invented, including using silicon instead of germanium.