Harry Sello: Silicon Pioneer and Industry Personality (1921–2017)
June 1968, I checked in at the lobby of the Fairchild R&D facility on Miranda Drive in Palo Alto. A distinguished gentleman with a huge grin rushed towards me and, energetically pumping my hand, greeted me like long lost friend. “David, it’s so good to see you!”
I glanced at the name on his employee badge. “And you too, Harry.” Having no recollection of seeing him before, I asked, “It’s been a while. Remind me where we met.”
“I don’t think we have. But Bonifacio sent me a telex saying you were moving here and to look after you.”
I had just transferred to California from the UK, where I worked for SGS-Fairchild, the European affiliate of Fairchild Semiconductor. Harry explained that he had installed the silicon manufacturing process in the SGS factory in Italy and still kept in touch with the managers there.
Harry Sello continued to “look after me” just as he befriended and looked after countless others who passed through his enthusiastic, smiling orbit during his 60-year career in the semiconductor industry as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” morphed into “Silicon Valley.”
Harry was born in born in 1921 in Chernihiv near Kiev, Ukraine, but then, in Russia. Carrying only the ancient family samovar, as Jews who had served in the Czarist army his parents fled with Harry to the USA in 1923. They settled in an Eastern European community in Chicago where his mother worked as a nurse and, although qualified as an accountant, his father delivered milk. They encouraged his interest in reading and music; he was a cellist in the high school orchestra. Sympathetic teachers mentored him in math and chemistry.
On graduating from the University of Illinois with a BS in chemistry in 1942, Harry enrolled in graduate school at the University of Missouri. With a couple of years of service in the US Navy in the Asia-Pacific theater, he earned MA and PhD degrees in physical chemistry and joined the prestigious Shell Oil Development Company in Emeryville, California, as a research chemist in 1948.
In addition to research on catalysis process development, Harry conducted live chemistry demonstrations aimed at high schoolers on the local public television station. Under the title Tempest in a Test Tube, a second series funded by the Ford foundation and recorded by WGBH was broadcast nationwide.
In 1957, William Shockley recruited Harry for his experience in physical organic chemistry to join his Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View. Although both Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce warned during the interview process that Shockley was a difficult person to work for, he was flattered that a Nobel Prize winner wanted him on his team.
When the “Traitorous Eight” departed to found Fairchild a few months after Harry arrived, they invited him to join them, but he was not comfortable about leaving so soon. He stayed for a couple of years working on resist materials and silicon device structures. A memorable project involved constructing an efficient diffusion furnace, for which Shockley rewarded him with a signed copy of his magnum opus, Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors, inscribed “To Harry Sello, A man with a big red hot idea.” That volume is now in the Museum’s collection.
As an example of Shockley’s competitive, ego-driven personality, Harry liked to tell the story of their lunchtime swimming date. Anticipating a refreshing dip, after several laps of the Stanford pool, Harry hauled out to relax and was astonished when his partner continued for another 40 lengths to prove beyond doubt who was the superior swimmer.
Harry joined Fairchild in 1959 as head of preproduction engineering on silicon transistors where he worked with the team that developed the planar process. Based on this experience he served as an expert witness on integrated circuit process patent litigation with Texas Instruments that Fairchild won, resulting in substantial royalty payments to the company.
In 1960 Fairchild signed an agreement to create SGS-Fairchild as a joint venture company to manufacture and market semiconductor products in Europe. One weekend Bob Noyce turned up at Harry’s house where he was laying a tile floor. After offering advice on how to prepare the surface, he told Harry that he wanted him to catch the next flight to Italy to figure out how to proceed with the project. After Noyce agreed to take care of finishing the floor, Harry consented to leave.
This evolved into a two-year sojourn as operations manager at the factory outside Milan. One of his favorite stories about that period was that he realized his Italian had reached a certain level of proficiency when he was required to fire a supervisor for having sex in the office. The next morning the employee’s wife, unfazed by the infidelity, assailed Harry for taking bread out of the mouths of her children. He understood every oath that she threw at him. On his return to the US, Harry headed a Materials and Processes department reporting to Gordon Moore at the R&D facility where we met.
Harry’s outgoing personality, TV experience, and ability to explain complex technical matters in simple language came to the fore in 1967 when Fairchild produced A Briefing on Integrated Circuits. This video forerunner of today’s infomercials was broadcast by more than 30 stations located near major electronics customers and seen by an estimated 2 million viewers across the country. From his 20 years of fundraising as an auctioneer for KQED Channel 9, his face was also familiar to audiences around the Bay Area.
Under new Fairchild management in the 1970s, Harry’s international expertise found him involved in a variety of high-level sales, technology licensing, and manufacturing projects. He negotiated agreements with state-owned and private companies, including those in Austria, China, Hungary, and Russia. Wilfred Corrigan, Fairchild president from 1974 to 1979, said, “Harry was very comfortable with this position influencing new relationships at a time that very few people at Fairchild had much visibility outside the US.”
Harry retired from Fairchild, by then owned by Schlumberger, in 1981. He formed a consulting company specializing in international licensing and technology transfer. This required frequent trips to Washington, DC, where he engaged in several hotel elevator conversations with Robert Redford during the filming of All the President’s Men.
Beginning in 2005, Harry and I worked together again at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. As director of the Semiconductor Special Interest Group (Semi SIG), I found his breadth of experience and strong relationships with pioneers of the industry extremely valuable. At age 91, Harry trained and donned the Museum docent shirt and enjoyed regaling young audiences with inside stories of the history of the technological revolution that he had lived.
A celebration of life for Harry Sello will be held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on Saturday May 27, 2017, at 10:30 a.m.
- Interview with Harry Sello, Silicon Genesis (1995)
- Sello, Harry, SEMI Oral History, Computer History Museum (2004)
- Harry Sello, Oral History 0300, Chemical Heritage Foundation (2005)
- Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory Oral History Panel, Computer History Museum (2006)
- Fairchild Semiconductor R & D panel discussion, Computer History Museum (2007)
- Obituary, San Jose Mercury News (2017)
Harry Sello was a wonderful teacher. Beginning in 2004, I learned so much from him about the evolution of semiconductor technology, of Silicon Valley, and about the men and women responsible for the story. My main education was the oral history I conducted with him, and in many telephone, email, and personal conversations thereafter. Everyone who experienced his laugh and charm will know just how Harry made all of this learning so much fun. He will be sorely missed.David C. Brock
Harry was in the original Revolution docent training with me. I loved his sense of humor and saying things like “I know semiconductors, but not all this computer stuff”. Harry was upbeat, cared about the CHM and his friends and was always a gentleman. We will all miss him.Lyle Bickley
When I think of Harry, I think of his wonderful aphorism, which he always said to me when we met: “The best is yet to come!” He was always interested in the future even though he was such a key figure from the past. I never thought of Harry as ‘old.’ He bubbled with life and humor and always made you feel important. I miss him greatly. Farewell Dear Friend...Dag Spicer
Harry was one of the first members of the Semiconductor Special Interest Group I met when I first joined the Museum in 2011. I liked him from the moment I met him and remembered being surprised that someone so down-to-earth, someone who swung by my cube to say hi whenever he was at the Museum, had not only witnessed but participated in the computer revolution. He was a superstar in my book and a great teacher. I especially enjoyed our conversations about art. I’ll miss those.Jenny De La Cruz
Harry added a certain gravitas to the museum. To have a docent who worked at Shockley Labs and then Fairchild Semiconductors (the very birth of Silicon Valley!), giving museum tours to the current generation was just astounding and truly an embodiment of the amazing innovation that has taken place in just one lifetime. Harry did a great job of giving tours to kids and adults alike and inspired so many visitors with his enthusiasm and passion for computing history. We will miss him and so will our visitors.Kirsten Tashev
I met Harry when I first started as a docent and he was a terrific source of information; and [he had] a great sense of humor due to my inadequate background in semiconductors. He was very patient when I asked him some dumb questions and he tried to give me answers which I could understand. He told me a little about working for Shockley and gave me an insight into the beginnings of the semiconductor business. His presence will be sorely missed.Bud Warashina
I had the pleasure of training Harry as a docent from 2010 to 2011. He was 91 at the time! And he had so much fun in the class–he told me more than once that he felt like he was learning more in the training than he had ever learned in his whole career. Given how distinguished his career was, I found that hard to believe, but I know he was sincere about how much it meant to him to be able to give back to the community and share his knowledge and experience with our visitors. Harry brought light and life to the Museum and I think we are all better for having had the privilege of working with him.Lauren Silver
I first got to know Harry when we were making a movie for the Revolution exhibit about manufacturing semiconductors, a subject he knew everything about, because, well, he had been there pretty much from the beginning. I quickly realized that not only was Dr. Harry Sello a world class scientist, but he was a world class storyteller, too. From that point on, I decided that every movie the Computer History Museum made would feature Harry, and often his wife Sheila. You’ll see him here in movies about Fairchild, TV commercials (In the background), and in the the Revolution introduction video, among others. I will miss a good friend with his charming and upbeat conversation, bright spirit, and the wisdom you see reflected in other comments on these pages. Until we meet again, Harry.Jon Plutte
I very much enjoyed working with Harry on the Fairchild Patent Notebooks project. He added real gravity and authenticity to the resulting video. He was always thoughtful, interested in the project and respectful of all involved. His enthusiasm and interest in all areas of the Museum were contagious. He will be missed and it was a real honor to have known and worked with such a pioneer.Paula Jabloner
I met Harry & Sheila Sello many years ago in Northern Italy. My father-in-law, Virgilio Floriani, founded a company called Telettra, which had significant crossover with what was going on with Fairchild. Fairchild sent Harry on several occasions to discuss the new and advancing technology. A wonderful couple, we always loved it when they came—a beautiful couple, fun, smart, and ingratiating. His passing brings sadness to my heart.Elsie Floriani
Almost 30 years ago when I immigrated to the Sates, Harry became my first American mentor, teacher, adviser, and partner. Moreover, he became my dear friend! Not everyone from new immigrants had such happiness, such a luck . . . He was an incredible businessman and brilliant in his executive management, diligent in his work ethic, and wise in his communications with people. I was privileged to learn from him those qualities and this helped me to become a successful leader at Stanford University, UCLA, and University of Phoenix, because what you saw in Harry was what you got: Intelligence, honesty, integrity, enthusiasm, belief, determination, love, empathy, strength, fun, dignity, kindness, and compassion.Vlad E. Genin
As a Fairch alumni, I first met Harry in the Building 20 Rusty Bucket in the early ’70s. He was not the typical manager at that time—in appearance or manner. He stood out as being different. I came to know him over the following decade from my Fairch European base in Germany, and greatly respected his technical knowledge, his international business knowledge, and his general willingness to help everyone and advise on all things semiconductor. Harry was one of the Gentlemen of the semiconductor industry, and his career demonstrates that. For a summary of Harry’s career in his own words, just google ‘silicongenesis.stanford.edu’ and scroll down and click on Sello for an audio/video of his life story.Robert N. Blair, San Jose, CA
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