Dec 29, 2013

Analog and Molecular Science

The term “molecular science” conjures up many images but very few that are related to analog semiconductor circuits. The term is most closely connected to nanotechnology in the electronics field. In the 1980s, Forrest Carter promoted the idea of a single-molecule logic gate. Carter was a chemist from Caltech, studying there in the days of Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman. Carter joined Westinghouse in 1957 and then moved to the Naval Research Laboratory in 1964. Decades later at NRL, he would use the term “molecular electronics” – a term that was in use at Westinghouse during his time there but for something somewhat different.

To begin to trace our analog footsteps, we need to go back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and World War II. In 1936, a German physicist name Arthur von Hippel joined the MIT electrical engineering faculty and worked during World War II as Director of MIT’s Laboratory of Insulation Research. He articulated a vision of highly integrated circuits:

Instead of taking prefabricated materials and trying to devise engineering applications consistent with their macroscopic properties, one builds materials from their atoms and molecules for the purpose at hand ... . He can play chess with elementary particles according to prescribed rules until new engineering solutions become apparent.
In 1956, von Hippel held a 10-day summer course on molecular engineering at MIT; and in 1959 he published a textbook entitled Molecular Science and Molecular Engineering, co-authored with numerous researchers from military and corporate laboratories – including the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) and Westinghouse.

The concept that evolved was in contrast to the typical semiconductor processing – pulling a single crystal ingot, slicing off a wafer and processing up. Instead, the idea was to ‘pull a pnp or npn crystal strip directly from the melt’, or to achieve the desired characteristics by ‘diffusing suitable impurities upon the newly formed dendrite surfaces’. Westinghouse had started development in this area but in early 1957 the Air Force was resistant. Then came Sputnik in October of 1957. Now the Air Force was interested and the money was there. Soon “molecular science” and “molecular electronics” were in the press and technical papers.

From Popular Electronics, April 1960:
A dendritic ribbon to which tiny multiple-function systems have been automatically attached is [?]. Here a series of multivibrators has been created directly on the dendrite. The individual circuits need only be clipped apart and leads attached. Soon, complete amplifier circuits will be produced the same way. The dendrite ribbon will be snipped into different lengths to give amplifiers of different gains - the longer the strip, the greater the amplification!
Eventually, engineers hope to "grow" complex electronic equipment - complete receivers, for example - automatically and continuously from a pool of semiconductor material. These receivers are still far in the future, but they would be unbelievably cheap and trouble - free by today's standards. Because of the low power consumption of molecular electronic function blocks, a single battery would last for years.
Molecular electronic devices will open up exciting new fields with their combination of high performance, small size, and low cost. For example, the wrist radio - a la Dick Tracy - will become common-place. The personal telephone - a tiny gadget to strap on your wrist or carry in your pocket - will become possible. With it, you will be able to call anybody in the world who is similarly equipped.
A flat-screen TV set that hangs on your wall like a picture will become a reality. Rapid advances in electroluminescence have already come close to making practical a screen only a fraction of an inch thick. Molecular electronics will make it possible to pack the rest of the TV circuitry into a hollow corner of the frame!

In the early days of the Noyce and Kilby versions of integrated circuits, “molecular electronics” was often used interchangeably. With this as a back-drop, a tiny semiconductor start-up changed its name from Electro Radiation, Inc to Molecular Science Corporation. They were early pioneers in the custom logic business with RTL, DTL and DTL-TTL blocks that could be configured into larger functions (an ASIC). The company was founded by ex-Fairchild processing expert James Nall.

Nall hadn’t been at Fairchild very long. In 1957, he and Jay Lathrop patented photolithographic techniques while at the U.S. Army’s Diamond Ordnance Fuse Laboratories. In 1959 Lathrop joined Texas Instruments, working for Jack Kilby, and Jay Last hired Nall at Fairchild Semiconductor. But by 1962 he had moved on. In 1963 they shortened the name to Molectro Corporation.

For reasons I don’t understand, Molectro attracted two more Fairchild defectors in 1965 – Bob Widlar and Dave Talbert. Likely it was due to the precision processing that was developed under Nall’s guidance. Talbert developed an EPI reactor and soon Widlar was developing what would become the LM100 – the first linear voltage regulator. Imagine what could have been!

But Molectro was in horrible financial shape and soon entered Chapter XI. In 1966, Peter Sprague brought National Semiconductor in from Danbury, Connecticut, to rescue them, financially. Molectro at the time had something like 30 employees and occupied a facility on San Ysidro Way in Santa Clara, CA. National had about 600 employees in Danbury and more importantly, was profitable. Peter Sprague brought in Charlie Sporck (and Fred Bialek, Pierre Lamond, Floyd Kvamme and Roger Smullen) from Fairchild to take over management of National. Charlie promptly fired half of the Danbury employees and effectively moved “National” to the Molectro site as its new headquarters. From an analog perspective, Widlar brought out the LM100 and National became and analog powerhouse.

National acquired Widlar and Talbert when it took over Molectro, formerly Molecular Science Corp – named for a term that once meant something quite different than it does today.

2. The Long History of Molecular Electronics: Microelectronics Origins of Nanotechnology, Hyungsub Choi and Cyrus C.M. Mody, 2009, 
3. History of Semiconductor Engineering, Bo Lojek
4. Spinoff, Charlie Sporck with Richard Molay, 2001

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