The difficult birth of Silicon Valley

It may seen amazing to anyone who has struggled with the horrendous traffic jams of California`s Route 101 that, a mere 40 years ago, Silicon Valley was a bucolic agricultural area filled mostly with fruit farms. And, indeed, given that the epicenter of semiconductor research was then at Bell Laboratories in northern New Jersey, one might have expected the semiconductor manufacturing industry to have developed in the Northeast. If William Shockley, who together with John Bardeen and Walter Bratt

Jan 1st, 1998

The difficult birth of Silicon Valley

It may seen amazing to anyone who has struggled with the horrendous traffic jams of California`s Route 101 that, a mere 40 years ago, Silicon Valley was a bucolic agricultural area filled mostly with fruit farms. And, indeed, given that the epicenter of semiconductor research was then at Bell Laboratories in northern New Jersey, one might have expected the semiconductor manufacturing industry to have developed in the Northeast. If William Shockley, who together with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented the transistor at Bell Labs in the late 1940s, had not been a native Californian, Silicon Valley might well have sprung u¥somewhere in New Jersey.

The story of how Schockley came to set u¥sho¥in the Bay Area of northern California, and how his imperious personality prevented him from enjoying the financial success of many of his colleagues, is told in a fascinating article in the December 1997 issue of Physics Today, "The Moses of Silicon Valley," by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson. Shockley was dubbed "the Moses of Silicon Valley" by his old friend, Frederick Seitz, a title that seems particularly apt. Not only did Shockley succeed in attracting many of the brightest minds in semiconductor research to the "promised land" of California but he also exhibited much of the stubborn nature attributed to the biblical figure of Moses.

One of those who responded to the Shockley call in 1955 was Robert Noyce, an MIT-trained physicist working on high-frequency transistors at Philco. "It was like picking u¥the phone and talking to God," Noyce later recalled. "He was absolutely the most important person in semiconductor electronics." Such was Shockley`s aura that he was able to persuade Arnold Beckman (of Beckman Instruments) to fund the establishment of the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View in early 1956. Shockley was able to attract such scientists as Noyce, Gordon Moore (the architect of "Moore`s Law") and Jean Hoerni (the inventor of the planar manufacturing process).

These talented scientists thought they had been recruited to California to work on the development of silicon transistors. Indeed the original goal of the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory was to manufacture transistors with silicon using diffusion. But for reasons that are not entirely clear, Shockley wanted to focus the grou¥on the field-effect transistor and the four-layer diode, devices that were then at the leading edge of semiconductor research. Noyce, Moore, and their colleagues felt that such devices were too difficult to manufacture and wanted to concentrate on making silicon transistors. To make things worse, Shockley had a heavy-handed management style that grated on many of his young staff--most were under 30. Shockley berated his researchers frequently and even had a shouting fit when his benefactor, Arnold Beckman, tried to control rapidly escalating R&D expenses.

As a result of Shockley`s stubbornness and tirades, eight key staff members, including Noyce and Moore, resigned in September 1957 to form a subsidiary of Fairchild Camera and Instruments Co., a major defense and aerospace company based in New York. Within a month, the grou¥launched Fairchild Semiconductor in a leased building in Palo Alto. The rest, as they say, is history. It took only a year for Fairchild to begin shipping diffused-base silicon transistors and to start making a profit. Almost every Silicon Valley electronics company can trace its technical lineage back to Fairchild Semiconductor, but the company owed much to the stellar attraction of Shockley in moving the original grou¥of researchers to Mountain View.

Lasers, too, moved west

In somewhat similar fashion, the key research that resulted in the laser was performed in the East by Arthur Schawlow at Bell Labs and Charles Townes at Columbia University, but the development of commercial lasers took place in California. In major part, this post-World-War-II commercialization of electronics in the Bay Area was due to the intellectual powerhouse of Stanford University and to Frederick Terman, its legendary dean of engineering. Terman was a brilliant teacher who also saw electronics as an entrepreneurial engine and encouraged his students to stay in the Valley and start their own companies. But it was Schockley who first put the silicon in Silicon Valley--with a little hel¥from his friends.

Jeffrey Bairstow

Grou¥Editorial Director

jeffb@pennwell.com

More in Research