Preserving semiconductor’s history, one bit at a time

Times Staff Writer

Duane Wadsworth finds meaning in the Elmat crystal puller.

The semiconductor industry artifact was one of the first machines to make high-purity silicon in the 1960s, when computers were the size of rooms and their central processing units were just starting to be replaced by the small chips that gave birth to today’s electronics industry.

The 10-foot-tall metal contraption is gathering dust in a warehouse here, but Wadsworth is on a mission to save it and other semiconductor-related items from the trash heap.

For seven years, the retired semiconductor materials salesman has been collecting industry memorabilia so that the origins of computing can be preserved for future generations. He had visions of a semiconductor museum, but that never took off.


Lately, however, he has found support from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., which this October will be the host, along with Stanford University, of a three-day gala marking the 50th anniversary of Fairchild Semiconductor.

Launched in Palo Alto in 1957 when a group of young engineers dubbed “the traitorous eight” defected from Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories, Fairchild created the first practical integrated circuit, as well as other technologies and practices still used in the semiconductor industry.

Fairchild, after a series of sales and acquisitions, is now based in South Portland, Maine. The company is a core part of Silicon Valley’s DNA, embodying its passion for technology and its culture of risk-taking.

One of Fairchild’s founders, Gordon Moore, who later co-founded Intel Corp., is helping to finance the museum’s collection efforts. This month, the museum received a $546,000 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for the purpose of collecting and preserving the industry’s history and providing educational services.

The Fairchild anniversary event has piqued the interest of semiconductor industry alumni, who have been dropping by the museum with their mementos. Wadsworth, in his scavenger hunt, applies his own hierarchy -- T-shirts and mugs from Intel’s first years are nice, but show him specification sheets for a ground-breaking integrated circuit or the first wafer that came off of Intel’s production line and he’ll become excited.

The treasures are strewn across the world, in museums, corporate lobbies, warehouses and employees’ closets.

“Some of this stuff just ends up at Goodwill,” he said. “Your kids and grandkids don’t know what it’s about and don’t care.”

The museum scored big last month when it took in two wagon wheels, about 100 pounds each, that the 70-year-old Wadsworth had squirreled away at the warehouse that holds the Elmat puller. In 2003, Wadsworth pulled the wheels and other Western-themed decorations from Walker’s Wagon Wheel, which had been a favorite watering hole of the semiconductor industry, just before the bar was demolished (today the lot is weed-choked and vacant, surrounded by a chain-link fence).

“The Wagon Wheel played a legendary role in the valley,” said David Laws, a semiconductor industry veteran who is staff director of a special committee at the Computer History Museum that is spearheading the semiconductor exhibit. “People would get together and talk about technical problems. ‘How did you etch that?’ It’s the sort of thing that would horrify an intellectual property lawyer.”

Wadsworth, who is also a member of that committee, believes that the wagon wheels can help tell the story of the early days of the semiconductor industry. Cleaned up a bit and now residing in a humidity-controlled room, the wheels will be on display at the Fairchild event. The bar will be re-created in one room of the museum through computer generated images to give guests the feeling of walking into the real place.

Preserving history hasn’t been a top priority for the semiconductor industry. Market leaders such as Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. are too busy competing to worry about the past.

“You have to be paranoid to be in this business,” Laws said. “Those people tend not to be great collectors of curios.”

A frenzy of mergers, acquisitions and spinoffs in the industry has made the collection efforts difficult by dispersing the industry remnants.

It galls Wadsworth that the first transistor made in 1947 at Bell Telephone Laboratories, the research arm of AT&T;, resides in the National Canal Museum in Easton, Pa. “A canal museum,” Wadsworth says in disbelief. A model of the prototype is being built by a former Bell engineer for the Computer History Museum.

The industry’s trade groups -- the Semiconductor Industry Assn., and Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI) -- have not taken part in the hunt because their mission is to focus on other matters, such as public policy.

Recently, however, SEMI has begun to collect oral histories of industry leaders, said Wadsworth, who is on the group’s board. SEMI also owns the warehouse in San Jose, which has become a purgatory of sorts for industry artifacts such as Wagon Wheel memorabilia including railroad spikes, a pile of deer antlers and a chandelier made from a wheel. The bar’s road sign leans against a wall at the warehouse.

The history museum, with 20,000 pieces of hardware in its collection, doesn’t have room for every piece of semiconductor paraphernalia. It turned down the Elmat puller, citing space issues.

Bending down to pick through the remnants of the Wagon Wheel at the warehouse on a recent afternoon, Wadsworth said he would appeal again to the museum’s curator to take the flotsam. But he knows there are bigger catches out there.

“The transistor at the canal museum,” he said. “That’s a real treasure. That would one-up the wagon wheels.”