SIGCIS 2010 Workshop Papers

Names:David C. Brock and Christophe Lecuyer

Institutional Affiliations:Chemical Heritage Foundation/University of California


Paper Type:Traditional

Paper Title:The Material History of Digital Electronics: The Development of Silicon Manufacturing Technology at Fairchild Semiconductor

Paper Abstract:The Digital World rests on the ubiquity of digital components, primarily the silicon integrated circuit. The ubiquity of the silicon integrated circuit, in turn, was the result of thousands of person-hours of labor by engineers, scientists, technicians, and operators and the investment of billions of dollars by semiconductor firms, equipment producers, and materials suppliers in the continued development of silicon manufacturing technology. This manufacturing technology is composed, to a great extent, by chemical and materials processes.

In the four years from 1957 to 1961, scientists and engineers at Fairchild Semiconductor made a series of transformative developments in the establishment and evolution of silicon manufacturing technology. They introduced the first diffused silicon transistors to the market, devised the planar process, and created the planar integrated circuit (the forerunner of the majority of digital circuits thereafter). In recent studies, we have investigated this early history of Fairchild Semiconductor by attending to three interconnected contextual “logics”: material, competitive, and market logic.

In their efforts to develop silicon manufacturing technology for the commercial production of silicon devices for use in digital computing, the scientists and engineers confronted a series of resistances to their intentions, and new opportunities, by the performances of their materials, primarily silicon, and their tools for manipulating these materials. This unfolding dynamic of reciprocal structuring of the researchers’ plans and intentions by the performances of their materials and tools we denote by material logic.

In this period and beyond, the semiconductor industry was marked by intense competition and rapid technological change. Perhaps the primary vehicle for competition between firms for new markets and shares of existing markets was manufacturing technology. Changes to manufacturing processes could lead to improved production yields, and cost-advantages, and also to new devices and device characteristics with their concomitant performance-advantages. It is this context that we call competitive logic.

The third primary factor that shaped development of semiconductor manufacturing technology was market logic. By pushing the development of production technology to make cheaper and more powerful microcircuits, the industry opened up large new markets – first military and then adding the larger commercial domain – among industrial customers who would use these microchips to digitalize their technologies and offerings.

In this paper, we review the interplay of these contextual logics in the development of silicon technology at Fairchild Semiconductor through 1961. In particular, we focus on the role of these contextual factors in the development of the planar integrated circuit.