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Analog Angle Article

The history of our world continues to emerge

Our fast-moving industry doesn’t have much time to record its accomplishments or how they were achieved. Markets and product now move too quickly for any formal collection and organization of notes, anecdotes, incidents, and the personalities that made things happen. Sure, they are plenty of business books and studies about what companies did and how they succeeded or failed—I have read lots of them—but these are usually soulless descriptions with phrases such as “Company XYZ developed a new widget which overtook the competitors.” There's no sense of the obvious fact that people actually developed the product, struggled over it, spent nights and weekends, nurtured its development, and even forged breakthroughs through determination, persistence, dedication, and even luck.

Recording the stories and people behind the developments used to be the norm in industry. It may seem incredible to us, but large companies, such as Radio Corporation of America (RCA—now there's a venerable brand name that has dropped from sight) used to keep corporate historians on staff to compile memos, attend meetings, and capture oral history. That sort of dedication is an artifact of the past, a victim of budget pressures and potential legal exposure.

This history vacuum may be changing, albeit slowly. I just received an excellent book, “Engineering the world: stories from the First 75 Years of Texas Instruments” by Caleb Pirtle III (Southern Methodist University Press). This is not a lightweight book, literally or figuratively. The 264-page effort is just that: a serious attempt to capture the facts as well as the stories and people behind them. It includes many photos, diagrams, even ads for key products. And while it is clearly focused on one company, that company has played a large role in the gestation and growth of the semiconductor (transistor and IC) world we live in. In many ways, the TI story is a proxy for many of the other stories we need to capture and retell.

There are some other books that go beyond the dry products and business angles. For example, “Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age” (1997) by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson does an admirable job, as does the more recent and quite entertaining, personality-focused “Spinoff: A Personal History of the Industry that Changed the World” by Charles Sporck (of Fairchild, National, and Sematech) and Richard Molay. Interestingly, much of the history of the industry is analog: the first transistor demonstration by Bell Labs was an audio amplifier circuit; the first high-volume transistor application was a basic AM radio from TI, and the first IC from Jack Kilby (also at TI) was an oscillator circuit.

Two other recently published books give perspective and personality to our industry and how we make progress. “Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley” by Leslie Berlin (Oxford University Press) and “Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930–1970” by Christophe Lécuyer, (MIT Press). The latter book, for example, makes the important point that people-driven breakthroughs (such as the development of planar process by Jean Hoerni at Fairchild, and reliable mass production techniques by Jay Last) were as important to the industry's success as the steady march of progress and Moore's law.

Why are these histories important to us? My first answer is this: in many ways, they are not. Sure, they are interesting, and they are fascinating, but many of the lessons they teach are no longer relevant. So much has changed in our industry, our business models, our customers, and our applications; further, our understanding of device physics is literally orders of magnitude greater than that of those early pioneers–they were stumbling around with so many unknowns of the solid-state world, and had to make educated guesses about what was going on.

At the same time, these histories remind us that it's passionate people and not faceless companies who make the difference, who are driven by a dream, who take chances, who don't give up, who force progress despite crude equipment and huge gaps in understanding. If you think you have product and project development problems, a read through some of these books will recalibrate your senses and establish a better reality baseline.

Bill Schweber , Site Editor, Planet Analog

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