A night of semiconductor history

Below is a public reposting of an Intel internal blog written by Tom Waldrop – Intel’s Director of Issues and Policy Communications:

Imagine, in one room, a group of scientists and engineers largely responsible for the advances in semiconductor-related technology that enabled the development and delivery of modern electronics — including computers, networking, cell phones, PDAs, DVDs, and more or less everything digital.

Saturday night at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, not far from Intel Santa Clara headquarters, was a showcase of semiconductor history rare even for Silicon Valley.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the integrated circuit, the National Inventors Hall of Fame moved its annual black-tie induction dinner – normally held in Ohio – to the CHM. The 2009 class of inductees was comprised of 10 living and 5 deceased innovators “who pioneered advances related to or enabled by the integrated circuit.”

For Intel alone, attending inductees included Gordon Moore (for semiconductor production), Andy Grove (as the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award), and Dov Frohman-Bentchkowsky (for the EPROM, or erasable programmable read-only memory).

But wait: Also attending were the three past Intel inductees who invented the microprocessor: Federico Faggin, Ted Hof, and Stan Mazor. There was also Carver Mead, the legendary physicist, Cal Tech professor, and friend and colleague of Gordon who named Moore’s Law. (Mead was honored for his contributions to Very Large Scale Integration chip technology.)

Toss in for good measure John Atalla (MOS Transistor and, later in his career, the PIN number system you use for your ATM card), Alfred Cho (Molecular Beam Epitaxy), Ken Manchester and John Macdougall (Ion Implantation), plus inventors such as George Heilmeier (the LCD) and Larry Hornbeck (Digital Micromirror Device for DLP projection).

Past inductees in the room included Douglas Engelbart (Computer Mouse), Steve Wozniak (Personal Computer), Louis Stevens (Magnetic Disc Drive), Don Keck and Peter Schultz (Optical Fiber), George Smith (Charge-Coupled Device), and many others.

Intel’s Paul Otellini and other top executives of Intel, past and present, were there to honor Gordon, Andy, Dov and the others.

It was truly historic. But what struck me most was the modesty, passion, and love for their work that is still apparent in the eyes and voices of these peerless inventors of the future, then and now. They did what they did because they had to, because they wanted to solve problems, and the wanted to change the world. And they did change, and still are changing, the world.

Neal Conan, host of National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” and emcee for the night, referred to Intel as the Valley’s “shining example” of innovation in semiconductors and Moore’s Law. With six Intel honorees present (and the late Bob Noyce mentioned often), it seemed very much an Intel night, and a night of special pride for an Intel employee like me, lucky enough to experience it.

Dov told a story that captured Intel’s culture and the culture of innovation that summed up the evening. To build the EPROM, they needed Intel’s Production department to build a quartz window into each chip package so ultraviolet light could be shined onto circuitry to erase bits. Preoccupied over the negative reaction he expected to get, he ran into Bob Noyce in the hall. After hearing Dov’s dilemma, Bob peered back for a moment, and said “Why not?” Dov took the idea to Production, whose fierce head was one Andy Grove. A smiling Dov told last night’s audience that this was probably the only time he took something to Andy when he did not receive “a redirection.”

Andy used the moment of his acceptance to pose the question: Will the next 50 years will be as productive as those times, 50 years ago? Then, said Andy, the inventor was also the producer. Today, “patents have become products themselves, instruments of investment, traded on a separate market, often by speculators motivated by getting a high return on their investment.” Andy suggested it may be time to re-apply the test of Thomas Jefferson, who many consider to be the father of the patent system: that the true value of invention is its usefulness in the life of the public.