Sep 26, 2013

Quick Transition Through Transitron

I often think about how many students at schools like Stanford and M.I.T. walk up the same steps as some of the analog legends. To the schools, it’s an honor to have so many people share those footsteps. Fairchild Semiconductor also has a rich history of footsteps leaving to start great companies. But another company was a virtual revolving door of brilliant engineers on their way to make history elsewhere. Few people remember Transitron.

Boston-based Transitron Electronic Corporation started in 1952 and found their early success in making diodes for the military market. Having secured the Western Electric transistor license they started into the semiconductor market sometime in 1953. By late 1954 Transitron had secured cross-licensing approval with several larger manufacturers. By 1955 Texas Instruments and Transitron were the leaders of the transistor industry with over 35% of the market. Its stock went from 36 to 60 in six months, and its sales from $7.4 million to $47 million between 1956 and 1960. According to TIME magazine in a Dec. 21, 1959 article, “only 30 minutes after being placed on the market, the first public offering of 1,000,000 shares of Transitron Electronic Corp. at $36 each was snapped up by investors. Not since the first public sale of 10.2 million Ford Motor Co. shares in 1956 has a stock issue attracted such broad public demand.”

As obscure as they now seem, their success was just as unorthodox. Transitron was founded in a former bakery by an eccentric pair of brothers named David and Leo Bakalar. One of the pair ran a shoe factory; the other was a Ph.D. who had worked at Bell Labs on transistor research. They recruited engineers to their firm by traveling through Europe and conducting interviews in major cities. They hired the brightest immigrants they could find, brought them to the United States, and worked them silly in the early days of discrete electronics components.

In alphabetical order, here are some of the more famous men who quickly passed through Transitron:

Hans Camenzind, from Switzerland, moved to the U.S. to attend Northeastern University. He worked at Transitron, Tyco Semiconductor (acquired by P. R. Mallory), then joined Signetics. He founded Interdesign, which he later sold to Ferranti (later GEC Plessey) and then went to Array Design Inc. He is famous for designing the popular 555 timer for Signetics and authoring several books on circuit and system design.

Wilf Corrigan, born and raised in Liverpool, England, emigrated to the U.S. to work as a production engineer at Transitron. Wilf remembers someone from Transitron coming into a room, where he was reading about semiconductors, and telling him that the production line was a mess: "They told me to get out there and get it running right, so I went, and I figured out semiconductors later." Transitron was that kind of place. He then went to Motorola and later to Fairchild Semiconductor with Lester Hogan after the departure of Robert Noyce in 1968. He co-founded LSI Logic Corporation.

Nick DeWolf, “a distant relative” of Ben Franklin, graduated from MIT, worked as an engineer for General Electric, became chief engineer at Transitron and then co-founded Teradyne with Alex d'Arbeloff.

Dave Fullagar, after earning a MSEE from Cambridge University and working for Ferranti in Edinburg, Scotland, emigrated to the U.S. to join Transitron. He then moved to Fairchild Semiconductor and eventually designed the ยตA741. Together with Jack Gifford and Fred Beck, he co-founded Maxim Integrated Products.

Pierre Lamond, from France, saw an employment ad in the New York Times for Transitron. They put him on the production line. In his third week, he was promoted to the head of production to replace his departing boss, and in a few more months, he was promoted to device development engineer. He briefly returned to France but, by 1959, he was back at Transitron as the head of development. In 1961, Lamond joined Fairchild Semiconductor, then in 1967, he joined National Semiconductor.

Tom Longo, founder of Performance Semiconductor, worked General Telephone who acquired Sylvania Electric, worked at Fairchild Semiconductor and Transitron.

Bob Swanson, was a founder of Linear Technology Corporation, VP and GM at National Semiconductor; he worked at Fairchild Semiconductor and Transitron. "I worked at Transitron for almost four years from 1960. I was in my fourth year at Transitron working on a PNP mesa structure transistor - this was the hot stuff then. I was trying to second source a Fairchild product. Fairchild, of course, was now a bright star on the West Coast and a friend of mine gave me an article that Fairchild had announced this thing called the planar process. It was like - ‘we're dead’”.

Les Vadasz started working at Transitron, then led the digital MOS technology sector at Fairchild where the man who had hired him into Transitron, Pierre Lamond, hired him again. Finally, he was part of the founding management team at Intel. At Transitron, Vadasz found himself building whatever he needed. Need vacuum chambers to distribute evaporated dopants? Build them yourself, out of a piece of tube. Need some silicon wafers? Build your own furnace; dump in chunks of silicon lumps; start it spinning; dip in a piece of seed crystal, rotating it in opposite directions; pull it out slowly; and hope for the best. Everything else pretty much required working under a microscope with instruments held in your own shaking hands. Everybody who passed through the Boston sweatshop seems to have come out the better for having been there, and for having left.

George Wells, from Scotland, worked at Transitron, then Fairchild Semiconductor, General Electric, eventually LSI Logic, and then he became CEO of Exar.


NOTES:

1. From the Computer History Museum profiles

2. “They Would Be Gods”, Upside, October 2001

3. Computer History Museum, abstracted from Rob Walker's 2006 interview with founder and CEO of Linear technology Bob Swanson, http://silicongenesis.stanford.edu/complete_listing.html

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