Apr 25, 2014

Motorola: How did it get here, where did it go?

Last week I saw a blog post from Rick Merritt of EETimes, “Motorola People, Products Remembered.” For many of us, Motorola was a company that made all sorts of electronic widgets. The “batwing” logo was ubiquitous and trusted. Aside from the things normal people knew of – like phones and old radios – those of us in the semiconductor world always had a bunch of Motorola IC data books on the shelf. That is, those of us who are also of the data book era. First to mind, for me, was ECL and then MC1488 and MC1489 (RS-232). I’m aware of a strong presence in consumer analog, but I have no first-hand experience there.

The triggers for Merritt’s post were the events of the recent past that could be categorized as “Motorola – Where Has It Gone?” But I choose to look at “Where did it come from?”

Trusty Wikipedia says that Motorola started in Chicago as Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in 1928. Paul Galvin introduced a radio for automobiles, a radio designed by Bill Lear and Howard Gates of Zenith. This was just at the beginning of the Depression. The product was called "Motorola" which was a blend of "motor" and the then popular suffix -ola used with audio equipment of the time (for example "Victrola"). The product was such a success that Galvin changed the name of the company to Motorola.

I remember a story about Henry Ford: he had a mining operation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he dug iron ore, shipped it down to the River Rouge plant in Detroit where they processed it into steel and put it right on the assembly line. So Henry owned the process from the ground to the finished vehicle. That was common in mid-century American business. Motorola didn’t dig up the sand, but they made semiconductors for their radios and televisions; made terrestrial base stations to support their radios; and eventually put satellites into orbit, too.

I will get back to Motorola Semiconductors in a bit; but first, an interesting story that Lester Hogan told about FM radio. Dan Noble was a professor at the University of Connecticut and was a very unusual guy. In the early 1930s, he read a paper from RCA Laboratories that basically said that Armstrong was wrong and that there was nothing you could do with FM that you couldn’t do better with AM. And they made a mistake; there were two major mathematical errors. As Hogan said, “Now you'd think with five people writing the damn thing, that one of them would've read it before they published it, you know! And it turned everybody off, except Dan Noble. Dan Noble thought ‘My gut tells me those guys are wrong.’ So he got the paper and read it carefully and found the errors and didn't tell anybody.”

“And he started building FM transmitters and receivers while he was a professor at the University of Connecticut. And the kids were listening to music on FM. That went over so powerfully, that the police people at Connecticut came to him and said: ‘Is it possible with FM that you can build a box that we can put in the back seat of our cars and that we can talk to any of our police cars, no matter where they are in the state of Connecticut?’ He said: ‘Yes, I can do that, but I can do something better. It can be two-way. They can talk back to you.’ And they were the first police department in any state that had two-way radio. And that became a staple of Motorola.”

In 1955, at its research and development laboratory in Phoenix, Arizona, Motorola introduced the world's first commercial high-power germanium-based transistor. This facility grew to become the semiconductor division of Motorola under Dan Noble. Dan eventually hired Les Hogan to run the semiconductor operation. The avid reader already knows that Hogan would eventually go to Fairchild and help it implode after Robert Noyce left. But the avid reader might enjoy a bit of background on Hogan.

Clarence Lester Hogan got his bachelor's degree at Montana State University in chemical engineering in 1942. He considered MIT but his father couldn't afford it. He said his father “couldn't afford to even pay my way to get over to MIT.” After graduation, he decided to join the US Navy rather than go out into industry. He “had four months of training to learn how to be an officer and then they sent me down to Chesapeake Bay where the Bell Telephone Laboratory was doing the job of building the acoustic torpedo.” He made a very good impression on the Bell Labs folks. He went on to Lehigh University after the Navy and got a Ph.D. in Physics. With his contacts, he was able to get a job at Bell Labs and started in early 1950.

“The fellow I reported to said, ‘Look, you're young, I think you ought to spend the first two weeks just wandering around the laboratory and getting acquainted with everybody. Find out what we're doing.’” So he met a mathematician who was playing around with Maxwell's theories and came up with an idea for a device that should theoretically be feasible, but no one had yet invented. So Hogan invented the microwave gyrator, isolator and circulator. "Hell, I can build that damn thing that that guy said should exist... I can put ferrite devices in a microwave system and the crazy thing will be non-reciprocal. It was stunning and people were just absolutely stunned by the existence of the thing. But, I was lucky I guess...”

Hogan worked right around the corner from Bill Shockley. Apparently, they only had minimal interaction. Hogan then left to be a professor at Harvard University. “I had job offers once a month for all of my period at Harvard, turned every one of them down except Dan Noble ...he was an executive vice-president of Motorola and he wouldn't take "no" for an answer. That was 1958. For the next decade he helped move Motorola from a predominantly captive semiconductor manufacturer to #2 behind Texas Instruments.

Then Hogan was contacted directly from Bob Noyce. Noyce and Moore were getting ready to leave Fairchild and start Intel and Noyce went out to look for a successor. When word got out that Hogan was leaving for Fairchild, many of his Motorola colleagues wanted to come with him. The group that came along was nicknamed “Hogan’s Heroes.” One of the heroes was Wilf Corrigan – eventual president of Fairchild and later founder of LSI Logic. Noyce and crew were replaced by a group of young men with terrific suntans moving into the executive office cubicles. The Fairchild people would always remember what terrific suntans they had. There was plenty of sunshine in the Santa Clara Valley, but apparently nobody there had suntans like this bunch from Phoenix. Fairchild had offered Hogan an absolute fortune in money and stock. Hogan received so much, the crowd at the Wagon Wheel started using monetary units called “Hogans” for executive compensation – oh, he’s only worth half a Hogan or a quarter-Hogan, etc. I think I’m worth a micro-Hogan.

Wilf Corrigan was another character. His father worked on the docks in Liverpool England. He was born in wartime, so his early childhood memories were of the bombings. He went to the Imperial College of Science, coincidentally to take chemistry, but then changed to chemical engineering. Upon graduation in 1960, he had three job opportunities: a gunpowder factory in Australia, another offer in Germany and the third one was a company called Transitron in Boston – the job in Boston paid twice as much as the other two. “I was told that I was now the production engineer for the 2N338 transistor line. And so being logical I said do we have a library here. So I went downstairs, found the library, checked out Transistors 1 and I got the book and I was on about page three of the book when a big guy came bursting into the room and he said, ‘Are you the goddamn new production engineer?’ And I said, yeah, I was twenty-two years old at this time, and he said ‘Well I've got two hundred women outside here on the line sitting on their asses with their hands folded, this line’s shut down and you're sitting here reading a book? Get your ass out on the line and go get that line started again.’ So that was my introduction to the semiconductor business.”

“An ad came in the newspaper from Motorola in Phoenix and they were going to be in town interviewing and they wanted people that knew something about epitaxy. And I said well gee I know something about that. So, to me, you know, I just arrived, you know, a few months, now suddenly I'm going from fifty-five hundred dollars a year to eighty-five hundred dollars a year, which was a big jump. And so I said okay, I'll do it. Now meanwhile my wife-to-be was back in Norway waiting to get her visa. Motorola would not pay in those days for girlfriends to travel. So I said, hey you've got to be there by this day and so one way or another I persuaded her to come by this date, which was right at the end of December. And so we got married one day and then we flew to Phoenix Arizona the next day.”
“So, it was a very exciting time and then through that, because we had the epitaxy process, we were then able to make transistors that were literally a quarter of the size of the competitor transistors. So then in, I guess in '62, I was suddenly given the job of why don't you run the whole transistor line? And part of the reason for that was because Charlie Sporck offered me a job to come work for him at Fairchild, this was in '62. And so I was going to go take this job and they (Motorola) said well, don't do that, why don't you come and run the transistor line because up till then I was the epitaxy guy...” Corrigan had only been out of college two years. In 1968 he left to join Fairchild with Hogan – after Noyce had left for Intel and Sporck had left for National.

But this is a story about Motorola, not Fairchild or National.

I included these two stories about men from Motorola because the Fairchild legend is that the stodgy old-school managers from Motorola came in after Noyce left and there was a total clash of cultures. I believe this was true. But I also get the impression that Hogan and Corrigan were not exactly stodgy in today’s terms. They were stodgy compared to the chaos at Fairchild at the time, but dynamic and aggressive nonetheless.

Regardless of who was running Motorola Semiconductor, they were always a force to be reckoned with. My own first-hand knowledge is limited to a slew of interface parts like MC1488 and MC1489, commodities by the time I entered the industry. Motorola was strong in logic families and also strong in consumer analog.

Although Phoenix is far away, Motorola contributed some important names to Silicon Valley. Tom Fredericksen of “Intuitive IC Op Amps” fame left Motorola for National in the early 1970s. He was followed by Jim Soloman, who became the leader of National’s standard linear group (SLIC) and later founded Cadence Design Systems. Bill Jett was an important op amp designer and Milt Wilcox was an important regulator designer; both left Motorola for National in the 1970s. They were all pretty low-profile characters; they just cranked out good parts. Bill Jett joined George Erdi at Linear Technology a decade later. Milt Wilcox joined Carl Nelson at Linear Technology, also. Once you start reading the bylines of application notes, you start to realize that these two guys quietly made some very significant product families there. And that “quietness” reinforces the image of the culture clash at post-Noyce Fairchild.

Today, there is no “Motorola Semiconductor” left. In 1999, Motorola's Semiconductor Components Group (discrete, standard analog and standard logic) was spun-off as an independent company named ON Semiconductor. Then in 2004, Motorola spin off its Semiconductor Products Sector (communications, processors, etc. including specific analog and mixed signal devices) into a separate company called Freescale Semiconductor, Inc.
In a reverse of the Silicon Valley “spin-off” model, ON Semiconductor grew substantially with several acquisitions: Cherry Semiconductor, the CPU Voltage and PC Thermal Monitoring Business from Analog Devices, AMI Semiconductor, Catalyst Semiconductor, PulseCore, California Micro Devices, Sound Design Technologies, SANYO Semiconductor, and the CMOS Image Sensor Business Unit from Cypress Semiconductor. I may have missed one or two.

Some of those acquisitions had roots in Silicon Valley. American Microsystems, Inc. (AMI) was founded in 1966 in Santa Clara, CA. It quickly established its manufacturing facility in Pocatello, Idaho, in 1970. In the early 1970′s, it had 50% share of the MOSFET IC market. Eventually it was bought by Gould in 1982 which was later bought by Japan Energy Corporation in 1988 and then in 2000, AMI was bought Francisco Partners and CVC and renamed AMI Semiconductor.
In a different manner, Freescale integrated itself into the “spin-off” web by naming Rich Beyer as CEO in 2008. Beyer became CEO of Intersil in 2002 when it acquired Elantec Semiconductor Inc, where he was CEO. Prior to Elantec, Beyer was president and COO of VLSI Technology and earlier VP and COO of National Semiconductor where I briefly worked in his group (but so far down the organization that he certainly didn’t know me). After Beyer left Intersil, he was replaced by Dave Bell who had been president of Linear Technology (where I worked for him, too).

As long as we have drifted away from the Motorola story, I’ll add that Jim Diller was on the Board of Directors when Beyer was at Elantec. Diller (senior) was a founder of PMC-Sierra. He briefly was interim CEO of Intersil after Dave Bell left. Not to be confused with Jim Diller, Jr. The younger currently manages an investment fund doing angel investing in start-up companies. But prior to his venture capital role, Jim, Jr. was CEO of Altos Semiconductor, which was later sold to Micrel. He has also held various positions at National Semiconductor (where I did not actually work for him …but saw him in the hallways). Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

Now that I’ve finished, I see that this was as much about tangled roots and people who left Motorola as it was about where Motorola came from. So it really was a story of “Motorola – Where Has It Gone?” – as in what path did the footsteps take?




Dirk Hanson, The New Alchemists, Boston: Little Brown, 1982

Silicon Genesis oral history


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