Computer History MuseumSemiconductor History

1958 - Silicon Mesa Transistors Enter Commercial Production

Fairchild Semiconductor produces double-diffused silicon mesa transistors to meet demanding aerospace applications.

In early 1958 Fairchild Semiconductor procured its first order, for 100 transistors at $150 apiece from IBM’s Federal Systems Division. No established manufacturer could meet its exacting specifications for a high-voltage silicon transistor to drive magnetic core memory in the B-70 on-board computer. Two development projects were pursued in parallel. A team led by Gordon Moore developed an n-p-n transistor and by Jean Hoerni, which worked on a p-n-p device.

In just five months, the founders (1956 Milestone) set up a crystal-growing operation (Sheldon Roberts), developed photolithographic masking techniques using 16 mm movie-camera lenses (Jay Last, Robert Noyce), established the aluminum characteristics needed for making electrical contacts (Moore), and built their own manufacturing and test equipment (Julius Blank, Victor Grinich, Eugene Kleiner) at their Palo Alto facility. Building on their exposure to Bell Labs techniques (1954 Milestone) at Shockley, they developed the first commercial double-diffused (emitter and base) silicon mesa transistor, so named for its raised plateau-like structure. After successful delivery of the Moore team's n-p-n transistor, the device was introduced as type 2N697 to great acclaim at the Wescon trade show in August 1958.

Autonetics selected the device for a guidance-and-control system on the Minuteman ballistic missile, the largest defense program of the era. In late 1958 a potential reliability problem put the new firm’s survival at stake. Tiny particles flaking off the inside of the metal package threatened to short across exposed junctions on the mesa structure. Hoerni's solution, the famous planar process (1959 Milestone), revolutionized the industry by covering the exposed junction with silicon dioxide.



Contemporary Documents

Tanenbaum, M., and Thomas, D. E. "Diffused emitter and base silicon transistors," Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1 (January 1956), pp. 1–15.

Aschner, J. F., Bittmann, C. A., Hare, W. F. J., and Kleimack, J. J. "A Double Diffused Silicon High-Frequency Switching Transistor Produced by Oxide Masking Techniques," Journal of the Electrochemical Society, Volume 106, Issue 5 (May 1959) pp. 415-417

Moore, Gordon E. and Noyce, Robert N. "Method for Fabricating Transistors," U. S. Patent 3,108,359 (Filed June 30, 1959. Issued October 29, 1963)

Other Oral Histories

Moore, Gordon (Fairchild and Intel) The Silicon Genesis Interviews (3.3.1995). Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California.

Sello, Harry (Shockley and Fairchild) The Silicon Genesis Interviews (4.8.1995). Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California.

Hodgson, Richard (Fairchild Camera and Instrument) The Silicon Genesis Interviews (10.19.1995). Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California.

More Information

Moore, Gordon "The Accidental Entrepreneur,," Engineering & Science Vol. LVII, No. 4 (California Institute of Technology, Summer 1994), pp. 23-30.

Moore, G. M. "The Role of Fairchild in Silicon Technology," Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 86 No. 1 (Jan 1998), pp. 53–62.

Lécuyer, Christophe Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech 1930-1970 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), pp. 139–150.

Riordan, Michael "From Bell Labs to Silicon Valley: A Saga of Semiconductor Technology Transfer, 1955-61," The Electrochemical Society INTERFACE (Fall 2007), pp. 31-36.

Laws, David A. "A Company of Legend: The Legacy of Fairchild Semiconductor," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 32, No. 1, (January 2010) pp. 60-74.