Oct 27, 2013

µ-zing About Prefixes

What’s in a name? When developing the modified Ford Mustang that would eventually win the 1965 World Manufacturer’s Championship, Carroll Shelby named the car GT-350. The prefix made sense; it was the classification in which the car would race. Rumor has it that “350” was the distance in paces from the assembly building to his office. To which he is often quoted, "If it's a good car the name won't matter, if it's a bad car the name won't save it!"

In the category of semiconductor devices, neither the prefix nor the root part number generally makes any sense. If anything, the prefix has some meaning – although this has often been lost in the passage of time.

Let’s examine the prefixes of a few analog semiconductor manufacturers.

Fairchild Semiconductor was famous for the first IC, a flip-flop in what would become the micro-Logic family. At the time, integrated circuits were always called microcircuits and Fairchild abbreviated with the Greek Mu, µ. Hence, their logic family had the prefix µL. At the time, there were no linear ICs – that would have to wait for Bob Widlar in 1963. Fairchild always referred to their analog line as “linear” but the “L” had already been used. The references are unclear, but it’s safe to say they chose “A” for analog.
µL = Micro Logic
µA = Micro Analog

 However, Fairchild used an order numbering scheme that did not use the “µ”. The format was “U” for microcircuits, two digits for the package type/number of leads, a microcircuit code for which “linear circuits” were always 7, the device number itself, the temperature grade, and finally one character reserved for special designation (standard devices were “X”). Hence, the µA709 in a 5-lead TO-99 package and -55°C to 125°C operating range had the number: U5B770931X. [1]

National Semiconductor likewise had different prefixes for different types of components. For analog, they used:
LM = Linear Monolithic
LF = Linear FET
LH = Linear Hybrid

Texas Instruments embedded the name for the different types of components within the root part number – the ubiquitous SN74XX###: 74 for commercial temperature logic (54 was military temp.), “XX” denoted the process technology and the rest of the number was the part function.

The prefix SN stands for “semiconductor network”. [2] The very first IC announced by T.I. was the SN502, a $450 flip-flop and they referred to the logic family as “solid circuit”. [3] “Semiconductor Network” was a TI name for the IC that seems to have replaced “solid circuits” and the SN prefix is still use today.

Maxim simply used “MAX” as the prefix, although second-source devices started with MX and another letter to indicate the company whose products they were second-sourcing.

Analog Devices used "AD" but eventually added additional letters to signify specific functions or product families.

Linear Technology did basically the same thing, LT for Linear Technology. However, Tom Redfern revealed that the investors were pushing for Linear Technology to offer CMOS analog circuits. That’s why Tom joined. The CMOS circuits got the prefix LTC to distinguish the process. It did not mean Linear Technology Corporation.

Several companies such as Precision Monolithics Inc. (PMI) and Burr-Brown used a more descriptive prefix. Operational Amplifiers had the prefix OP or OPA, references were REF, digital-to-analog converters were DAC, and so on. Today, Analog Devices carries on the PMI prefix in many devices, and T.I. carries on the Burr-Brown prefixes.

The IC prefix and numbering convention diverged significantly from the diode and transistor conventions that engineers were used to. In the U.S., the JEDEC convention was utilized. JEDEC was founded in 1958. The first semiconductor devices, such as the 1N23 silicon point contact diode, were still designated in the old RMA tube designation system, where the "1" stood for "No filament/heater" and the "N" stood for "crystal rectifier". The first RMA digit thus was re-allocated from "heater power" to "p-n junction count" to form the new EIA/JEDEC EIA-370 standard. [4] Another short-hand interpretation was that the first digit is the number of leads minus one. An ordinary bipolar transistor has three leads, so the first digit for it will be 2. The letter N is for semiconductors.

Despite the intention to make numbers logical or easily able to be deciphered, we remember the good parts. If it’s a good part, the number won’t matter. If it’s a bad part, the number won’t save it.


[1] Fairchild Semiconductor, Linear Integrated Circuits Application Handbook, 1967, written and edited by James N. Giles

[2] Andrew Wylie, http://homepages.nildram.co.uk/~wylie/ICs/monolith.htm

[3] http://smithsonianchips.si.edu/texas/pg00083.htm

[4] JEDEC, Wikipedia.org

Oct 16, 2013

Not the "Animals of Silicon Valley"

For years I had heard that National Semiconductor were the “Animals of Silicon Valley”.  It was a badge of honor.  Like Animal House.  I always assumed it was a direct lineage from Bob Widlar and the sheep on National’s lawn.  And I assume it was dominated by analog characters who followed in the footsteps.  I knew the moniker “Animals of Silicon Valley” was created by an article.  So I tracked it down.

January 12, 1981.  Fortune Magazine.  “National Semiconductor’s beastly ways have paid off…”

It started off great: “In the cutthroat semiconductor industry, no company has a more fearsome reputation than National Semiconductor Corp.  Known as the streetfighter of Silicon Valley, it has made a fetish of forcing down production costs for its broad line of microelectronic components, and it moves with lethal speed to slash prices, gobble up market share, and drive competitors from the field.  ‘They’re animals,’ marvels one of the company’s largest stockholders.”

But then, for me – an analog guy – the article takes an ominous turn.  It starts discussing the 16K RAM chips.  And then how Wall Street might like them better if they didn’t keep trying to “integrate forward”, meaning watches, calculators (see photo of mine), mini computers and automated checkout systems for supermarkets.  “Their product strategy is a zigzag, the result of somebody’s having come up with a bright idea at the last minute.”

The article failed to live up to its title.  Yes, it continued to portray National as having a hard-nosed, frugal style.  Of being “the sweatshop of our industry – a pipe-rack, low-cost, survival-oriented company.”  But it echoed what I knew of its culture, that those who survive develop great esprit de corps based on hard work.  One of the finance guys said, “I was terrified.”  “There was so much table-pounding and yelling at meetings that I thought the company was falling apart.”  But he learned that it worked for them, “It highlights problems quickly.  Wide-open communications and rapid strategic planning are the nature of the beast at National.”

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at many points in the article.  Of course, in 1981, Charlie Sporck was predicting great things for the systems business and could point to the early trends to support it.  The article references an advertisement with Charlie – cigar in hand – “National Semiconductor is crossing the Rubicon.  We are entering the computer market with a range of sophisticated, system-level products.”  Yeah, not completely.  The die was not cast and they came back to their roots by the time I worked there.

By the end of the article even, it hints at getting back to basics… “Semiconductors are the most glamorous part of our business” said Charlie.  And of all people, Pierre Lamond said, “The best opportunities are in chips, not outside.  Anybody who stresses forward integration isn’t looking in his own backyard.”

And so ended the article titled “The Animals of Silicon Valley” which is really a snapshot of a time when National took their eye off the ball, in my analog-centric opinion.  There are dozens of stories of companies that spun-out of situations like this to become pure-play analog IC companies.  And I plan to recount those stories here in Analog Footsteps.  The other strategies work, too, but that’s not my blog.

As long as we are stuck in January, 1981, let’s flip through the rest of the magazine.  Page 15: General Electric chairman Reginald H. Jones steps down and is succeeded by John F. Welch, Jr. (yes, that Jack Welch… we’ll talk about him and Jack Gifford later).  Page 16: Colonel Harland Sanders dies; founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Page 66: An article about Hambrecht & Quist who did the IPO for Apple Computer, making 25 year old Steve Jobs and 29 year old Steve Wozniak millionaires ($165M and $88M, respectively – Woz had spread his shares among his parents and siblings; “the Steves” were just kids).  Oh, by the way, Mike Markkula ($154M as chairman of Apple Computur) had worked at Fairchild.  Then president, Mike Scott? Also from Fairchild.  Page 97: an advertisement from Moore Business Forms touting their green-bar report paper that is easier for executives to read and saves 37% on storage space and shipping costs and also eliminates carbon paper handling and disposal.  Back cover: an advertisement for Glenlivet, 12-year-old Scotch.  I can picture executives in their wide ties, reading green-bar reports and drinking Scotch.

Where were you in 1981?

"The Animals of Silicon Valley", Fortune magazine, January 12, 1981.  Bro Uttal.
(I can send you a poorly scanned PDF copy.)

Oct 12, 2013

When 30 Was Old

I worked for a huge company when I was in college and I struggled with the predictable pace of the organization.  When I joined National Semiconductor at age 24, I had the freedom to work as hard as I could.  Soon, I was in before 7am and sometimes didn’t leave until 10pm – and then I was in for more on Saturdays.  But I was learning the ropes; paying my dues.  I wasn’t inventing an industry.
I look at photos of the “traitorous eight” or a clean-shaven Bob Widlar – maybe it’s the black and white photo or the crisp shirt and tie – but they don’t look like twenty-something year old kids.  But they were.  And they were inventing an industry.

Fairchild has been likened to a frat house with brilliant young engineers and marketers working long days and partying long nights.  They were number one in linear circuits in the mid-1960s.  The linear circuit market was almost single-handedly created Bob Widlar and Dave Talbert – an incredible duo and with almost no official sponsorship from Fairchild management.  Widlar joined Fairchild at age 26, achieved tremendous commercial success by 29, then retired at 33 with a million 1970-dollars.  He came back as a contractor for National Semiconductor because he just couldn’t not work (forgive the double-negative).  Talbert was maybe 2-3 years older than Widlar.
Dave Fullagar joined Fairchild in 1966 at age 24, the week after Widlar and Talbert quit to create what would become National Semiconductor.  Fullagar’s legendary µA741 was introduced when he was 26.  A year later he left to become the manager of linear integrated circuits at Intersil (or the company's first linear designer, conflicting references, same result).  After huge success at Intersil, he co-founded Maxim at age 39.
Jack Gifford was brought in from Fairchild sales in Los Angeles to be the first product manager for linear ICs at Fairchild to support Widlar’s products.  Jack had only just joined the company at age 24.  By age 25½ he was managing 200 people.  At age 26 he co-founded AMD with Jerry Sanders among others and later co-founded Maxim.
Jerry Sanders joined Fairchild when he was 24 years old.  He became the WW Sales Manager at Fairchild at age 31. 
“I guess what I remember the most is how young everybody was. Gordon (Moore) was 32. I think Bob Noyce and Charlie Sporck were 34. Tom Bay was around 34. This was a really, really young, young group. And the belief of everybody was there was nothing we couldn’t do. … Everybody was just full of energy. It was a 24/7 kind of environment and was growing so fast.”
Charlie Sporck joined Fairchild at age 32 as production manager.  At age 39 he became CEO of National Semiconductor.  When Sporck took over National, the man who helped orchestrate it, Peter J. Sprague, became chairman of the board – at age 27.
At National, Bob Widlar hired Bob Dobkin, then only 25 years old.  Dobkin rose to the top of the engineering ranks at National then co-founded Linear Technology at age 37.
Meanwhile back at Fairchild, Wilf Corrigan was running what was left of Fairchild.  Wilf reflected on the time when he almost joined Fairchild the first time.  
“Charlie tried to hire me to run the materials department at Fairchild in ’62. Now, if you figure this out, I was 23 at the time. Of course, Charlie seemed so terribly old to me at the time. I mean he was 32 with a big cigar. And so I was quite enthused about it. So I went back to Phoenix (Motorola) and I talked to Les Hogan and he said, “Well, why would you want to go do this?” And I said, “Well, I’ll have profit and loss responsibility.” I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded pretty good. So Les said, “Well, I’m making a change in the transistor department, and why don’t you stay and you can have profit and loss responsibility and run Silicon Transistors?” So as a 23- year-old that sounded like a pretty good idea. Leo Dwork, who’s my new boss said, “Can I do anything to help you on this thing?” And I said, “Yes, could you show me how to use a 576 curve tracer?” So I’m supposed to be running this operation and he has to show me how to use the curve tracer.”
Wilf eventually left Fairchild and started LSI Logic.
It’s tempting to think that Fairchild and this group of people were unique.  But there’s a long history of it in Silicon Valley and it continues on today.
Hewlett and Packard were 27 and 26 years old when they started H-P, much like the founders of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and YouTube were kids.
There are some “kids” working in our group at work.  I try to give them all they can handle and let them do as much as they are capable.  I just want to clear away any roadblocks and get out of their way.  I had a really young boss early on at National and he used to say, “fan the flames, man, fan the flames!”  Who knows, they might invent an industry.  Fan the flames.

“They Would Be Gods”, Upside Magazine, October 2001
Silicon Genesis, Stanford University, Interview with Jack Gifford
Silicon Genesis, Stanford University, Interview with Jerry Sanders
Silicon Genesis, Stanford University, Interview with Charlie Sporck
Fairchild Oral History Panel: “The Legacy of Fairchild” (Wilf Corrigan, Gordon Moore, Jerry Sanders, Floyd Kvamme), Computer History Museum, Oct. 5, 2007
“The History of Semiconductor Engineering” Bo Lojek

Oct 6, 2013

Gossip Sheet, 1981: Linear Quits National

In the 1970s and 1980s, Don Hoefler published a newsletter called "Microelectronics News," which was part "tabloid" and part "gossip sheet" for Silicon Valley.  Don is credit for being the first one to coin the phrase “Silicon Valley” in print.  Many of his stories came from watering holes like the Wagon Wheel, Rickey’s, Marchetti’s, and others.  In 1981, he foretold the beginning of Linear Technology Corp.

Startup in the Offing 
FIVE IN LINE.      The heart of National’s linear operations, including the group director and two top IC designers, departed en masse on Thursday (30), intending to start a new analog company, as yet unnamed.The defectors are these:
  • Bob Swanson, head of linear operations at Nat, and intended president of the new company
  • Bob Widlar, one of the industry’s leading linear designers since the days of the Fairchild 709
  • Bob Dobkin, a Widlar protégé and star designer in his own right
  • Brian Hollins, head of wafer fab for advanced linear at Nat
  • Brent Welling, lately Nat’s microprocessor marketing director but a longtime linear marketer
Negotiations are also underway for John Nesheim, who recently ran afoul of the mercurial temper of Nat prexy Charlie Sporck (MN, July 18, 25), to join as financial guru, but nothing signed here as yet. 
NO BULLSEYE.    The Swanson group is wisely leaving plenty of airspace between itself and National, so as to prevent the most evanescent target possible for a potential lawsuit by the litigation-prone Sporck.  At the time of departure, the group had no name, no articles of incorporation, no business plan, no financing, and no office or telephone. 
But, adds Swanson, “We didn’t all leave good jobs without an understanding that our chances of getting backing are excellent.” 
WORK CUT OUT.              In undertaking to tame this group, as Swanson well knows, he must be combination ringmaster, father confessor, and wet nurse.  Widlar is as uninhibited as they come, and Dobkin is not far behind.  Linear specialists are as rare as brass nuts on a uranius monkey, and they know their worth. 
A Valley company recently began exploring the market by placing help-wanted ads locally in the Boston area, Florida and San Jose, and nationally in the “Wall Street Journal.”  The rather expensive campaign produced exactly six inquiries, with exactly zero linear experience.  The diversification plan is now on ice. 
And while a new linear company would seem to have better prospects than some of the flaky digital business plans that have been floated over the Valley in the past six months, it is not without its pitfalls. 
To try to go up against Texas Instruments, Motorola and National in the jelly bean business would be suicidal.  And finding a niche for penetration in the specialty market is arduous and time-consuming.  Peculiar customer demands make it a semi-custom business, while standard products have to make their own way and get designed in, which often takes 3-4 years.  And getting 38510 qualification for the military market has a timetable all its own. 
Still, one has to pay attention when Swanson says, “We’ve got a hell of a team and we think we’re going to do great things.”
As Bob Swanson said in a 2006 interview, “…there were four or five of us, we were getting together, we'd drink beer and play pool and finally one of the guys said look, are we going to drink beer and shoot pool or are we going to start a company? And it was like that sort of shook me and I said were going to start a company. Let's do it. And so we hand our resignations in and just as we suspected, National was not very happy.

R. J. Schreiner Colletion, Microelectronic News, August 1, 1981 (http://smithsonianchips.si.edu/schreiner/1981/h81811.htm)
Silicon Genesis Project, Stanford University, (http://silicongenesis.stanford.edu/transcripts/swanson.htm)

Oct 1, 2013

Six Degrees of Vannevar Bush

Add “Bacon Number” after any actor’s name in a Google search and you will find how many degrees of separation they are from Kevin Bacon.  This is based on movies or television shows that they appeared in together.  Vannevar Bush has a Bacon Number of 3 [1].
1.     Vannevar Bush and Robert Oppenheimer appeared in Atomic Power, a post-war documentary about the making of the atomic bomb and the birth of the nuclear age.
2.     Robert Oppenheimer and Gary Oldman appeared in Countdown to Zero, a documentary about the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons since the end of the cold war.
3.     Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon appeared in Criminal Law.
However, Robert Oppenheimer died before decades Gary Oldman narrated the documentary, Countdown to Zero which was released in 2010.  Nonetheless, it makes me think about how so many analog engineers are linked to Vannevar Bush.  Of course, under the banner of the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II, six thousand scientists worked for Vannevar Bush.  So the odds were pretty good that many future analog legends were connected to him.
What’s your “Vannevar Number”?  Who have you worked with that also worked with Vannevar Bush?
Here are some people who have an NVannevar = 1:
·         Fred Terman, the so called “father of Silicon Valley” from Stanford University; studied under Bush at MIT and returned to work for him at the Radio Research Lab during WWII. [2]
·         Bill Hewlett studied under Bush while pursuing his MSEE at MIT in 1936. [need to confirm, timing was right]
·         George Philbrick worked in the fire control division of Bush’s National Defense Research Council (NDRC) during WWII.
·         Claude Shannon was a student of Bush at MIT.
·         Hendrik Bode was not a student of Bush, but worked in the NDRC under Bush during WWII.
·         William Shockley obtained his doctorate from MIT in 1936.  During WWII, Shockley became director of research of the anti-submarine warfare operations research group under Bush.
·         I’ll go out on a limb and say that Burr-Brown founder, Robert Page Burr, passed through Vannevar Bush’s organization when he trained in radar at MIT during WWII. [3, need to confirm]
·         Anyone who worked at Raytheon before WWII, since Bush founded this company.
·         Many engineers who graduated from MIT in the 1930s, since Bush taught there.
Here’s an interesting NVannevar = 2:
·         Bob Widlar’s father (Walter) worked under Bush in the anti-submarine warfare operations research group – so Bob Widlar is a 2.  Incidentally, Walter Widlar worked for Shockley. [4]

1.     www.google.com
2.     Fred Terman at Stanford, C. Stewart Gillmor, 2004
3.     http://paw.princeton.edu/memorials/42/64/index.xml
4.     History of Semiconductor Engineering, Bo Lojek