16 May

Herman Fialkov: An Appreciation

Uncategorized 2 Comments by davidcbrock

      Part of history’s great fascination is the interplay between capricious contingency and discernible structure, between that which looks like chance and that which resembles logic. This holds true for the history of technology as well. I am led to these ruminations on history in thinking about the story of Herman Fialkov, a remarkable high-tech entrepreneur and a real gentleman, who died earlier this year at the age of 89. I was lucky to have the opportunity to conduct an oral history interview with Mr. Fialkov — that concentrates on his experiences as a semiconductor industry pioneer and venture capitalist – as part of my work with the Chemical Heritage Foundation to document what we call the “chemical history of electronics.”
     For me, a major lesson that comes through in this oral history of Mr. Fialkov’s experience is a reminder that Silicon Valley is by no means the entirety of the story of semiconductor electronics and, indeed, of recent technology. Mr. Fialkov’s activities remind us that in the 1950s, semiconductor electronics was an East Coast phenomenon. Here were entrepreneurial startups, transistor and microcircuitry innovations, and successful industrial manufacture concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England. Similarly, it reminds us that the development of modern venture capital, intertwined and coevolving with high technology enterprises, had its origins in this very same region. The distinctive form of Silicon Valley venture capital investing – the limited term partnership – arose simultaneously on the East Coast as well. In fact, Mr. Fialkov was not only one of the first entrepreneurs to start a transistor startup, he was one of the first venture capitalists to invest their substantial wealth from semiconductor electronics into his own, and others’, venture capital partnerships.
     The technological, entrepreneurial, social, economic, material, and organizational logics that gave rise to Silicon Valley also, and simultaneously, gave rise to the same form of activities in other geographic areas – especially the East Coast. While these activities persisted to the present, they became increasingly overshadowed by the activity in Silicon Valley in the 1970s. There, contingent path dependency – the unique success of semiconductor firms like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel – led to an incredibly dense, interconnected ecology of firms and organizations devoted to high technology entrepreneurship and industrial production. This dense high-tech ecology led to successive waves of innovation built atop semiconductors in Silicon Valley: personal computers, software, and the Web.
     While these are some of the broad lessons that I’ve taken from Mr. Fialkov’s oral history, his rich personal story is no less fascinating. I will share with you some of its highlights. Herman Fialkov grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the family struggled in his early years as his father had to give up his career as a watchmaker after losing sight in one eye. For young Herman Fialkov, the aptitude that he displayed in math and science in New York’s public schools offered him a route to self-realization. After graduating, Fialkov secured a position as a design engineer with Emerson Radio – a leading radio manufacturer based in downtown Manhattan – while pursuing an engineering degree at the City College of New York at night.
     Married at 20 to his first wife, with whom he enjoyed a decades long marriage up to her death, Fialkov soon found himself saying goodbye to his wife, his job, and CCNY for the Battle of the Bulge as and infantryman in 1944. Earning the Bronze Star from the Army as a sign of harrowing military experiences that, later in his life, he still found emotionally effecting, Fialkov returned to New York to his wife and his job at Emerson. With the GI Bill, Fialkov completed his engineering degree at NYU, again in his evenings.
     After graduating in 1951, Fialkov found a job with Brooklyn-based Radio Receptor. Like Emerson Radio, Radio Receptor was a manufacturer of military electronics. After the Bell Telephone Laboratories announcement of the strikingly new rival to the vacuum tube – the transistor – Radio Receptor became an extremely early adopter, taking one of the first licenses in 1952 when they became available from Bell Labs and Western Electric. From 1952 to 1954, Fialkov was deeply involved in Radio Receptor’s pursuit of the first form of semiconductor devices: point-contact germanium transistors and diodes. With Bell Labs’ announcement of the junction transistor – which had many advantages over the delicate point-contact structures – Radio Receptor began to explore the production of germanium alloy-junction transistors. This was the primary form of transistor employed in the creation of the first transistorized digital computer mainframes of the 1950s.
     In 1954, with Radio Receptor struggling to go public and with his sense of a large opportunity in junction transistors, Fialkov decided to strike out on his own. Many, if not most, of the fundamental processes used to make transistors then (and now) are chemical in nature. Most basically, transistors are made from single crystals of semiconductor elements, like germanium or silicon. The process of growing these large single crystals from a molten pool of semiconductor material was the first of these steps. These grown single crystals were then sliced into wafers in which the transistors were formed. In his work at Radio Receptor, Fialkov had met with a Brooklyn-based manufacturer of grown quartz crystals (the major constituent in quartz is the semiconductor silicon). Fialkov and the proprietor of the grown quartz shop decided to go into the transistor business together. In 1954, the split the ownership of this new spinoff, that they named General Transistor.
     Very quickly, Fialkov drove General Transistor into the manufacture of germanium alloy-junction transistors when there were just a handful of manufacturers in the industry. Fialkov quickly secured some of the leaders of the early U.S. computer industry as customers for his transistors: UNIVAC, Control Data, Raytheon, and, later, Cray. The market for germanium alloy-junction transistors was booming, and Fialkov expanded General Transistor’s capacity. The value of the stock, privately traded with the help of New York investment bank Hayden Stone, soared. The firm, both headquartered and manufacturing in Queens, was a great success.
     In 1960, Fialkov merged General Transistor with a larger electronics systems manufacturer, General Instrument. The combined firm, continuing under the General Instrument mark, quickly entered into the hottest field in electronics: microcircuitry. In particular, Fialkov aggressively moved General Transistor into silicon integrated circuits: the microchip. With key hires, like Frank Wanlass, Fialkov’s move led to notable microchip firsts by General Instrument. Fialkov also was one of the first people to move semiconductor manufacturing offshore. In the 1960s, he moved General Instrument’s production of germanium diodes and transistors to Taiwan, shuttering its Rhode Island factory.
     After spearheading the move of General Instrument into one of the very first cable television operations, Fialkov retired from the firm in 1968. He immediately turned his attention to venture capital investing in high-technology startups. One of the bankers from Hayden Stone, Arthur Rock, who had helped in the placement of General Transistor stock, had on the basis of this profitable experience encouraged a group of scientists and engineers in California to start their own company in 1957. It became the semiconductor industry leader, Fairchild Semiconductor, that really established Silicon Valley and made Arthur Rock extremely successful. Rock moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s and created Davis and Rock, the first venture capital partnership. Back East, Fialkov was an investor in their first fund which returned handsome profits. Leaving General Instrument in 1968, Fialkov established his own New York based venture capital partnership, Geiger and Fialkov. Both Arthur Rock and Fairchild co-founder Jay Last were investors. For the next two decades, Fialkov was very active as a venture capitalist in high technology, scoring a number of notable hits with microchip and communications companies.
     After retiring from his career as a venture capitalist, Fialkov continued to support high technology through angel investing. His sense of where the new areas of opportunity and excitement in technology lay remained acute. Poignantly, the February 2012 issue of Wired magazine carried a feature article “The Trash Blaster” on a new environmentally friendly technology for using municipal and industrial waste as a fuel in a plasma oven. The article reports on important pilot plants and trials with major players, such as Waste Management. The trash-burner start-up was one of Herman Fialkov’s angel investments. It was in February, the month the article appeared, that Mr. Fialkov died.
     In personal conversation, Mr. Fialkov seemed just as proud, if not prouder, of his family than any other of his life’s accomplishments. He took particular pleasure in the fact that his grandsons had both followed in his footsteps to become successful venture capitalists in high technology – based in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, it should be noted.
     I will close with a story that Mr. Fialkov told in his oral history that particularly struck me. I know that it resonated for his family as well. His son – a successful lawyer for WGBH television – mentioned the story in his eulogy of his father. As a boy, Herman Fialkov — the watchmaker’s son – was a great enthusiast for Erector Sets. Building structures with them, he dreamed of designing and building a mechanical bridge that would span the Atlantic, connecting the US to Europe. He later realized, that with his involvement in electronic communication technology firms, that he had helped to build a bridge of sorts across the Atlantic, and even farther. He felt he had realized his boyhood dream.

13 Jul

The Uncertain Future of Moore’s Law

Uncategorized 1 Comment by davidcbrock

An essay of mine appeared in Science Progress: http://www.scienceprogress.org/2011/06/the-uncertain-future-of-moore%E2%80%99s-law/

Most of the essay can be found below:


The Uncertain Future of Moore’s Law

The Rise of 3-D Transistors and What it Means for Technology in the 21st Century

Intels rendition of the new transsitor design SOURCE: Intel Corp. Intel’s rendition of a traditional 2-D transistor, at left, alongside their new 3-D transistor, right.
By David C. Brock | Wednesday, June 15th, 2011 | Share This | Print Print

For examples of how digital technology is rapidly, profoundly, and unexpectedly shaping lives across the globe, look no further than today’s news: social media and the Arab Spring; the Stuxnet worm and the clandestine cyberwar against Iran; the proliferation of smartphones and tablets; the ubiquitous web and the cloud; Netflix streaming surpassing web surfing on the net; Bradley Manning’s data dump to Wikileaks; and Microsoft as the new tech underdog. The digital world is changing rapidly, and so are we.

We have become accustomed to this state of perpetual flux, of this open-endedness in the application and proliferation of new digital technologies. Yet underneath this flux and unpredictability lies a shared certainty: The cost of digital electronics, and the technologies built with them, will dramatically plummet as their power and performance continues to rise exponentially.

This conviction about the future of digital electronics—silicon microchips—is widely known as “Moore’s Law,” named after Gordon Moore (a chemist and co-founder of both Fairchild Semiconductor and the Intel Corporation) for his explication of this developmental dynamic in silicon microchips in 1964.

We have already entered into an age of uncertainty about Moore’s Law itself.

Equal parts economic and technical, this developmental dynamic has been maintained for a half century by the semiconductor industry, through the efforts of thousands of researchers and the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars. Maintaining Moore’s Law has required a coordinated push in a single, common direction: shrinking the size of the basic building blocks of microchips—tiny switches known as planar transistors—and, to use Moore’s term, cramming more and more of them into the same area of a silicon chip. To semiconductor initiates, this common direction is known as CMOS scaling (CMOS is an acronym for the variety of microchip that rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s). In fact, since the 1990s the semiconductor industry along with its specialty manufacturing tool and materials partners have collaborated on the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, a careful timeline of the problems that must be solved to maintain the traditional pace of change in silicon microchips.

The metronomic pace of CMOS scaling, largely taken for granted outside of certain technical communities, underlies our expectation of continual surprise in the digital world, from the continued proliferation of ever-more-powerful microchips. Our conviction in the reliability of Moore’s Law profoundly shapes the expectations and decisions of both producers and consumers of electronics-reliant goods and services. From military weapons systems to consumer electronics, product planning is grounded in Moore’s Law. As individual consumers, our purchasing decisions share this grounding: Who has not waited a year to buy a gadget, with the expectation that next year’s gadget version 2.0 will deliver much more bang for the buck?

But what we’ve taken for granted for decades may soon change. On Wednesday, May 4, some of the leading technologists at the Intel Corporation held a press conference to disclose details about their new silicon manufacturing technology. While there was much of interest in the Intel disclosures about the future of silicon microchips and the competitive landscape of the global semiconductor industry, perhaps the most important implication of the presentation has received little comment: We have already entered into an age of uncertainty about Moore’s Law itself. This conclusion is somewhat ironic, since Intel announced that it had succeeded in developing a new innovation that will extend Moore’s Law for at least another six years.

What did Intel disclose last month? In essence, Intel announced that it had abandoned the planar transistor, and, therefore, traditional CMOS scaling. As Mark Bohr, one of Intel’s most senior technologists put it in the press conference Q&A, “We can say goodbye to planar transistors.”

For the remarkable run of CMOS scaling over the past four decades, a defining feature of planar transistors was that they were flat; hence, their name. As planar transistors were shrunk so that a billion of them could be crammed into a single microchip, one problem became more and more pronounced. They became harder to turn off, a very bad thing for a switch. Solutions to this problem entailed a growing difficulty of their own: The improved transistors were power hungry, anathema to applications like smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

To continue shrinking transistors in order to maintain the pace of performance and cost improvement for microchips, and to untangle itself from this power dilemma, Intel announced a new manufacturing technology that it will begin to use for all of its products next year. In this technology, Intel will replace planar transistors with “Tri-Gate” transistors. These new transistors are no longer flat, but rather take the form of a minute rail or “fin.” Indeed, the more generic term of this new form of transistor, used by other semiconductor firms, is “finFET.” One of the principle virtues of these new non-flat or “3-D transistors” is that they are easy to turn off, and thus combine great switching speed with very low power consumption.

At left is a traditional 32-nanometer 2-D transistor, while at right is the newer, smaller, 22-nanometer 3-D transistor.

Intel is making the jump to its Tri-Gate transistors several years ahead of its semiconductor industry rivals, and sees them as providing a basis for its subsequent generation of manufacturing technology in the next six years. This new path to maintaining Moore’s Law, as the Intel researchers noted, builds on previous deviations in the last five years or more from traditional materials and structures for CMOS scaling. As Bill Holt, the Intel VP for technology development put it, “Simple CMOS scaling…ended a while ago.” In the midst of their press conference, the Intel team presented a quote about the move to 3-D transistors from none other than Gordon Moore himself: “For years we have seen limits to how small transistors can get. This change in the basic structure is a truly revolutionary approach, and one that should allow Moore’s Law, and the historic pace of innovation to continue.”

While Intel’s jump to the world beyond traditional CMOS provides a view into the immediate future of the world’s largest chipmaker, a considerable haze of uncertainty now surrounds what its rivals will do in the near term, and what the whole industry will do after six short years. For the immanent “22 nanometer” or “22 nm” technology for which Intel will use 3-D transistors—and which Intel claims will have the capability of cramming as many as 6 million such transistors into the area occupied by a standard printed period—many of its major competitors will maintain the planar transistor, and pursue an alternate approach to the power problem known as “silicon on insulator.” At the upcoming “14 nm” technology some three years down the line, the semiconductor industry could bifurcate, with larger firms abandoning planar for 3-D transistors—moving beyond CMOS—while smaller firms pursue the “silicon on insulator” technology.

This handy (and not-at-all corny) video Intel put together illustrates the difference between 2-D and 3-D transistor technology:

Looking out further toward 2016, at the “10 nm” technology for which development is already underway, the haze thickens. The optical technology used to form today’s microchips becomes increasingly improbable at that level of the nanoscale, and the top contenders to replace it are already late in their development to keep pace with Moore’s Law. Looking out less than a decade from now to the “7 nm” technology that is planned to follow 10 nm, the inherent atomic nature of matter looms as an issue for fabricating uniform devices. The diameter of a silicon atom is 0.2 nm.

As the semiconductor industry drives deeper into the nanoscale, it appears that we are returning to an age of technological uncertainty not dissimilar from the one from which silicon microchips first emerged. <pullquote>Such a return to a period in which the future of electronics was highly uncertain, and developments were far more unpredictable, could be both highly disruptive and incredibly exciting. <pullquote>

Disruption could occur in many forms. Patterns of technological change may become less uniform, with the magnitude of changes and their timescale disaggregating across different technologies. The management and funding of research and innovation may have to undergo considerable revision to adapt to uncertainty. On the one hand this means technological and economic planning may become significantly more difficult. On the other, creative and unexpected new directions in research might abound.

For most of the past 40 years, industry has conducted and financed the bulk of the R&D for CMOS scaling. In an age of increased technological uncertainty, government support of high-risk research may return to prominence. Indeed, direct military funding of R&D and activist, price-insensitive military demand were essential to the initial development of the microchip in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this era, government research spending on microelectronics was significant, risk-tolerant, and open-ended, supporting a broad array of speculative approaches. It is interesting to note that the semiconductor community looks to DARPA-funded research at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1990s as the origin of the 3-D transistor approach.

One conclusion to be drawn from Intel’s recent announcement is that while the immediate future of Moore’s Law appears clear, the longer term developmental path for electronics is now as, or more, uncertain than it has been for a half century. Previous news of the death of Moore’s Law has turned out to be exaggerated. The rather incredible extensibility of silicon technology and the creative potentials of the semiconductor community have repeatedly surmounted previous purported barriers. Surely silicon technology and microchips will continue to surprise even the most knowledgeable observers in the years ahead.

Nevertheless, with Intel’s leap to the world beyond traditional CMOS scaling and the planar transistor we appear to be quickly approaching a regime of increased technological uncertainty. Perhaps this is a return to a more typical state of affairs from a temporary excursion into unprecedented continuous and predictable change. “Doubt is not an agreeable condition,” Voltaire once quipped, “but certainty is an absurd one.”

David C. Brock is an historian of technology and the co-author of Makers of the Microchip (MIT Press, 2010). Brock is a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and is also affiliated with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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15 Dec

The Virtuous Circle: Chemistry and Electronics

Uncategorized 1 Comment by davidcbrock

One of the largest instrumentation firms on the planet – Life Technologies, famous for its Applied Biosystems line of DNA sequencers – made a splash last week with its announcement of the first commercial DNA sequencer to employ semiconductor sequencing. The provocatively named Ion Personal Genome Machine relies on proprietary silicon microchips. These chips, disposed after each run of the instrument, are made using conventional semiconductor manufacturing technology, and contain large arrays of pH sensors underneath a matching array of micro-wells. The chips can use changes of pH in these wells to detect the incorporation of nucleotides onto fragments of DNA held in the wells, thereby providing sequence data. Semiconductor sequencing, then, is DNA sequencing in an entirely new technological mode: electrochemical detection, rather than optical (fluorescence) observation.

Much of the excitement around the Life Technologies announcement, and semiconductor sequencing in general, is the tremendous speed of the approach, and the relatively low cost of the instrument itself. The Ion Personal Genome Machine is faster than current second, and the emerging third, generation DNA sequencer, completing a run in just two hours. At $50,000, the cost of the instrument is also an order of magnitude cheaper than these other systems. However, there are important limitations of the current semiconductor sequencer as compared to its newer rivals: it produces a significantly lower amount of sequence data per run, can only sequence relatively short segments of DNA, and, because a new chip must be used for each run, the cost per sequenced base pair is actually higher. Nevertheless, Life Technologies and others hope that semiconductor sequencing will lead to Moore’s-Law-like increases in functionality and decreases in cost. For the moment, the commercialization of semiconductor sequencing could lead to a segmentation of the sequencing market, with low-system-cost machines like that from Life Technologies used for diagnostic work in labs and clinics. Indeed, Life Technologies rival in high-end optical sequencing, Roche, has recently announced a partnership with a UK firm, DNA Electronics, to develop its own low-system-cost instrument with pH-based semiconductor sequencing.

Jonathan Rothberg, who developed the Ion Personal Genome Machine in his startup Ion Torrent that was recently purchased by Life Technologies (and who’s previous startup 454 Technologies is the basis for Roche’s optical sequencing business), is fond of describing semiconductor sequencing as “Watson meets Moore,” that is James Watson of double helix fame, and Gordon Moore of Moore’s Law fame. Rothberg’s phrase point out that semiconductor sequencing is the latest in a long series of virtuous circles of innovation produced by the intersection of chemistry with electronics. Chemical knowledge and technologies have been central to the development of electronics, most especially the microchip. Electronic (and information) technologies, in turn, have been a perennial resource for the creation of new forms of chemical instrumentation.  Indeed, the first integrated, general purpose, pH meter was created by Arnold O. Beckman in the 1930s through the combination of electrochemistry with vacuum tube electronics. With their reliance on ultra-miniaturized pH sensors, perhaps it would be better to say that the Ion Personal Genome Machine is “Watson meets Moore, and Beckman.”

For an insightful analysis of the Life Technologies announcement see: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101214/full/news.2010.674.html

For some illustrative videos on the Ion Personal Genome Machine’s technology, see: http://www.youtube.com/user/iontorrent

For an interview with the founder of Pacific Biosciences, a third-generation DNA sequencer startup, see: http://www.chemheritage.org/visit/events/history-live/turner/index.aspx

Permalink: http://dcbrock.net/news/2010/12/15/the-virtuous-circle/

UPDATE: I was interested to see that soon after I wrote this entry, Forbes magazine published a cover story on Ion Torrent and Rothberg: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2011/0117/features-jonathan-rothberg-medicine-tech-gene-machine.html

11 Oct

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the IC with the Makers of the Microchip

Uncategorized No Comments by davidcbrock

On September 29, 2010 a group of 110 people gathered at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California — the center of Silicon Valley — to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the microchip, and to launch a new book on the subject, “Makers of the Microchip: A Documentary History of Fairchild Semiconductor,” from MIT Press. Fifty years ago to the week, at the end of September 1960, a group of engineers and scientists at Fairchild Semiconductor in Silicon Valley succeeded in making the first working planar integrated circuit, the first in the line of microchips that have been developed to this day. By continually developing the basic silicon manufacturing technology developed at Fairchild in the late 1950s, the global semiconductor industry has produced generations of microchips that have gotten exponentially more powerful, at the same time that the cost for this performance has fallen exponentially. This dynamic in silicon microchips is known as “Moore’s Law,” named after Gordon Moore, a chemist, silicon technologist, and co-founder of Fairchild. With these silicon microchips, researchers and engineers have suffused the human-built world with digital electronics, have built the digital world. Several of the makers of the microchip gathered at the event on the 29th — Julius Blank, Lionel Kattner, and Jay Last — which was organized by the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Computer History Museum. Speaking at the reception were Museum CEO John Hollar, Foundation Chancellor Arnold Thackray, Fairchild co-founder Jay Last, and the book’s co-authors, Christophe Lécuyer and David C. Brock

From left to right: David C. Brock, Julius Blank, Jay T. Last, Lionel Kattner, Christophe Lécuyer