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Thursday, 29 April 2010

Review: Microchip, Jeffrey Zygmont (2003)

Fairchild Semiconductor is an apt name for a company that spawned - along with Dallas, Texas-based Texas Instruments - an industry, a legend, and also gave a name to a whole entire region of California.

Established on the ocean-and-bay-facing penninsula south of San Francisco, Fairchild's children - including giant Intel (a portmanteau word combining 'integrated' and 'electronics') - spread out across what would come to be known as Silicon Valley.

Fuelled by a search for viability through profits, a slew of small semiconductor companies emerged, beginning in the late-1940s and 1950s. They cannibalised each other for ideas and personnel. They experimented with novel manufacturing processes as they attempted to expand the capabilities of monolithic silicon, and apply it to an increasing number of industries and products.

Zygmont's focus is on discrete stories, such as Phoenix, Arizona-based Motorola's bid for a massive, new mobile telephone contract launched by the government. There's also an account of the work Motorola undertook as it competed for the huge automotive-control market.

Faster, cheaper, better. These watchwords motivated thousands of engineers, many with higher degrees, to push the boundaries of an emerging technology. The ability to concentrate hundreds (then thousands, then millions) of transistors on a single piece of rock would engross the nation as new products from their labs launched on the national stage.

For An Wang, who first made a buck in portable calculators, the idea of word processing was a big risk. The eccentric doctor mentored it and its inventor - Harold Koplow - through its first, gestational stages until it was released.

The irony is that Koplow's unsuccess in the company had seen him practically sidelined out of it, before he decided to write a user manual for a computer-based device for secretaries. The document morphed into a functional specification for the world's first commercial word processor.

Zygmont emphasises the free-market credentials of the silicon transformation of American industry. Without the freedom to move quickly, change direction according to the environment, and attract capital from many places, the project would not have succeeded, he says.

The book is fast-paced, and includes potted biographies of many of the main players in the project. It takes in developments starting in the late 1940s through to the mid-1980s, when automotive silicon began to be widespread.

A little breathless at times, the book is nevertheless a solid work of industry journalism and therefore is recommended.

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