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San Jose Mercury News, Calif., Mike Cassidy column: Chip inventors getting their due at Hall of Fame induction [San Jose Mercury News, Calif.]
[April 30, 2009]

San Jose Mercury News, Calif., Mike Cassidy column: Chip inventors getting their due at Hall of Fame induction [San Jose Mercury News, Calif.]

(San Jose Mercury News (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Apr. 30--The 50th birthday celebration of the integrated circuit kicks off in Silicon Valley this weekend, and frankly, I'm a little overwhelmed.

It's like being the movie writer in Hollywood during Oscar week. Or being the golf writer in Augusta when the Masters comes to town. Because this weekend, the stars are coming out. Our stars, anyway.

On Saturday night, the National Inventors Hall of Fame is inducting this year's class. The sold-out ceremony is in Silicon Valley for the first time, because the Ohio-based hall is honoring 15 who are responsible for breakthroughs in semiconductor technology -- the technology that put the "silicon" in Silicon Valley. Add to that excitement the group of A-listers expected to be in the audience and, well, it gives me the vapors.

But seriously, whether or not they are all household names, these men changed our households and our history for the better. In a way, it's as if the valley's founding fathers are coming together to be honored in person and posthumously.

Inductees Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel and namesake of Moore's Law, and Carver Meade, chip design pioneer and all-around brainiac, will be at the ceremony. So will lifetime achievement honoree Andy Grove, Intel's former CEO. Expected in the audience are Doug Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse; Federico Faggin, who worked on the first microprocessor; Stan Mazor, also microprocessor; and Steve Wozniak, who was on "Dancing with the Stars." No way can one column do justice to the biographies of the class of 2009. And no way am I going to try to pick just one or two of these guys to write about. (Though publicists for weeks have been explaining to me why their particular guy is the guy to write about.) Instead, I'm honoring an era and a cast of characters that made Silicon Valley what it is today. It all started in 1957, in a plain office building on Charleston Road in Palo Alto. The "Traitorous Eight" fled William Shockley's lab around the corner and set up Fairchild Semiconductor, a company that spawned dozens of others -- including Intel, AMD, National Semiconductor and LSI Logic. A half-dozen of the inductees -- including Moore, the late Bob Widlar and the late Jean Hoerni -- have a Fairchild connection.

These early pioneers and their chip-building contemporaries were kids, as much as the founders of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and YouTube were kids.

"There were no rules of the game," says Michael Malone, an author who has studied the valley for decades. "So they really went crazy in a lot of ways. They were over at the Wagon Wheel, getting drunk and chasing women and crashing their cars on the way home." Yes, it was a different time. But they were free thinkers, brilliant, and at times quite full of themselves. And why not? When they weren't at the Wagon Wheel, a Mountain View tavern, they were building microelectronics that few others could even have imagined.

These innovators are the reason we have PCs and the Internet and iPods and coffee pots that will start brewing before we wake up. The integrated circuit they invented and improved upon is in almost everything we touch these days -- electric toothbrushes, automobiles, watches, cell phones, televisions, and on and on.

But the early semiconductor giants also built a way of working, a way that said: "We'll judge you on what you accomplish -- not when you do the work, or how you do it, or what you do when you're not doing it." "They cast the model for valley culture," says Leslie Berlin, a Silicon Valley historian and author. "Everything people associate with the valley in terms of Nerf football in the hallway and such, kind of goes back to the notion of nurturing creativity." Widlar, a chip designer who died in 1991, might have been the godfather of the valley's work hard/play hard ethic. He once arrived at National Semiconductor, where he ended up after Fairchild, with a sheep in the back of his convertible. He let the animal loose to trim the lawn, which had grown long after company cutbacks on landscaping.

Widlar was a hard-drinking genius who would wander off to think and come back with mind-boggling solutions to some of technology's most vexing problems. Oral and written histories tell of him delivering industry lectures while guzzling tumblers of gin. ("He was just so damn smart, you know. Even drunk he could wow those people," former National CEO Charles Sporck once said. (See No, it's not the sort of thing that gets you into the hall of fame today. But it's a comfort to know that Widlar and the others are being recognized for having accomplished so much more.

Contact Mike Cassidy at [email protected] or 408-920-5536.

SALUTE TO THE SEMICONDUCTOR In addition to Saturday"s National Inventors Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the Computer History Museum is holding several events next week as part of a year-long program called Salute to the Semiconductor, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the integrated circuit. Museum officials expect the events to be booked to capacity. The events: Wednesday: "From Tinkertoys to Solid Circuits: Microcircuitry in the Late 1950s," with speakers Michael Riordan, Charles Phipps, Jay Lathrop and L. Arthur D"Asaro. 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. event.

Thursday: Tours of the Computer History Museum (2:30, 3:30 and 4:30 p.m.) and the Intel Museum (3:30 p.m.) Friday: Commemorative plaque unveiling at original Fairchild site (shuttle bus leaves museum at 3:30 p.m.). Also: "The Planar Integrated Circuit: Building the Future at Fairchild Semiconductor," with speakers Christopher Lecuyer, Leslie Berlin and Gordon Moore, Jay T. Last. 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. program.


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