March 8, 2005
The Fairchild Chronicles: DVD tells tale of Silicon Valley's seminal startup
Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources (SULAIR) has released a three-hour digital video documentary about Fairchild Semiconductor, the first company to mass-produce the computer chips that enabled personal computers and the Internet. The Fairchild Chronicles is available for $39.95 from Panalta Inc., 250 Emerson St., Palo Alto, CA 94301, http://www.thefairchildchronicles.com. All profits go to SULAIR to continue chronicling the history of the semiconductor industry.
The documentary is part of a 10-year-old SULAIR project called Silicon Genesis (http://silicongenesis.stanford.edu), which archives video oral histories of Silicon Valley with support from the Semiconductor Industry Association. That project in turn is part of an even older SULAIR endeavor, the Stanford and Silicon Valley Archives Project (http://svarchive.stanford.edu), which since 1983 has preserved historical documents about Silicon Valley as a center of technology and entrepreneurship.
"The archival record of the semiconductor industry has always been a key component of our archives, beginning with the papers of William Shockley and the historical records and photography collections of Fairchild, National and other companies," said SULAIR's Henry Lowood, curator for History of Science and Technology Collections. "The Silicon Genesis Project, which we started together with Rob Walker, has been our primary effort to add to that record through videotaped oral histories of semiconductor industry pioneers."
Walker, a Silicon Valley native and engineer who produced the DVD with Panalta's Kevin Bomberry, has been involved with semiconductors since the 1960s, working at Fairchild and Intel and later founding LSI Logic. He is the author of Silicon Destiny: The Story of Application Specific Integrated Circuits and LSI Logic Corporation.
Paper archives don't reveal everything, and oral histories like The Fairchild Chronicles may help fill in the gaps, Lowood said. "There are many things that happen between and among people that are never really set down to paper. That's a long-recognized principle. We've had other oral history projects here, and other places have had oral history projects. What's a little different here is that the impetus behind the project, originally Rob Walker, is himself a founder of a Silicon Valley company, LSI Logic, and so he has access to a lot of people and can speak to them in a way that a historian can't."
Said Walker: "With the passing of [Fairchild co-founder] Bob Noyce, I became convinced that the history of the pioneers of semiconductors and of Silicon Valley should be preserved on video oral histories. I was overjoyed when I found Stanford felt the same way, and so we began a collaboration that has continued since 1995 with more than 30 oral histories recorded to date."
In The Fairchild Chronicles, Walker interviews many of those who led the company and went on to spawn other Silicon Valley legendsincluding Gordon Moore (Intel), Wilf Corrigan (LSI Logic), Jerry Sanders (Advanced Micro Devices) and Charlie Sporck (National Semiconductor). The documentary begins in 1957, when Gordon Moore, Sheldon Roberts, Eugene Kleiner, Bob Noyce, Victor Grinich, Julius Blank, Jean Hoerni and Jay Lastlater dubbed "The Traitorous Eight" by transistor co-inventor William Shockleyleft Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories to start Fairchild Semiconductor with backing from Fairchild Camera & Instrument of Syosset, N.Y. The story ends with Fairchild's purchase by National Semiconductor in 1986. In between are tales of business disasters after Fairchild Camera exercised its option to buy Fairchild Semiconductor in 1958, making it a division of the parent company, and of culture shock when Schlumberger, a French oil services company, bought all of Fairchild in 1979. Stories of partying with colleagues and even competitors at the Wagon Wheel in Mountain View and of a failed manufacturing plant on an Indian reservation in Shiprock, N.M., are among the oral history's surprising tales. Archival photographs pepper the interviews.
Walker's interview transcripts and supporting research have been deposited in SULAIR's Special Collections department; they include materials from Fairchild's R&D facility, once located in the Stanford Industrial Park. Innovative technology allows full-text searches of interview transcripts and corresponding video. "If you type in transistor in the search field, it will give you two-minute clips that have the word transistor included in them," Lowood explained.
The Fairchild Chronicles will likely interest anyone interested in the history of technologyscholars, teachers, engineers. "The material is amazing," Lowood said. "It's remarkable to me the things that people said on the record for the interviews, and it's a gold mine. We've had a couple of dissertations here use it extensively."
For example, biographer Leslie Berlin used the videotaped oral histories in researching her 2001 Stanford doctoral dissertation, "Entrepreneurship and the Rise of Silicon Valley: The Career of Robert Noyce, 1956-1990." "Rob Walker, himself a veteran of the semiconductor industry, has given us a rare chance to share the memories and hear the stories behind Silicon Valley's first successful chip company," she said.
"These informative and entertaining interviews literally put a face on the history of Silicon Valley," said Ross Bassett of North Carolina State University, author of To the Digital Age: Research Labs, Start-Up Companies and the Rise of MOS Technology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). "They were indispensable for my own work."
A photo of the Fairchild founders is available on the web at http://newsphotos.stanford.edu.