PS AUDIO: The mayor of Silicon Valley

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Paul McGowan writes: When we first started PS Audio back in the dark ages of the early 1970′s there was no such things as email, the World Wide Web or, for that matter, personal computers either.  The IBM PC was launched a decade after PS Audio was founded and the computers of the day were big cabinet sized beasts that you could communicate with through a teletype machine – a remarkable device in itself because it was a network connected electric typewriter – but that’s another story.

In high-end audio tubes ruled the day and pioneers in solid state designs like Bob Carver with his Phase Linear products, Bob Hafler with Dynaco, James Bongiorno with SAE and PS with its phono preamp and line stage were amongst a small handful of solid state devotees who would continue to forge ahead in the face of a lot of opposition and naysayers of the day.

Now let’s travel back in time a bit more recalling our posts about the invention of the transistor and its rise to fame in the 1950′s.  One of the more flamboyant of its inventors, William Shockley, left Bell Labs and founded his own company bearing his name.  Shockley had a great nose for sniffing out brilliant talent and inspiring that talent to follow him and join his company.  Unfortunately Shockley was also incredibly hard to work for and apparently a lousy manager – not a winning combination for a successful business and true to form, Shockley’s semiconductor business was never a success.  One of the men he hired, Robert Noyce, was later to become one of the inventors of the integrated circuit and the microprocessor – two related inventions many would argue has had a far more profound impact on the world than even Shockley’s co-invention of the transistor itself – and decades later change the face of high-end audio.

Noyce, a physicist, was not happy working for Shockley but also had a temperament of trying to fit in and not make waves: keep it steady and make it work.  Others around him were not of the same mind and in the mid 1950′s convinced Noyce, Gordon Moore and six other engineers working for Shockley to mutiny and leave the company to form their own.  The outcome became known as Fairchild Semiconductor named after the owner, Sherman Fairchild – a company that built cameras and airplanes.

While at Fairchild the business flourished building individual transistors mainly for military and space programs.  To keep history in perspective, this was the time of the Cold War, Sputnik, the great space race and the growth of the computer industry – although there was no such thing as a personal computer at the time (Bill Gates was 2 years old at this point).

During these heady days of discovery and emerging industries the pace was fever pitched and discovery was big – but actually figuring out how to fabricate these new devices was equally critical and Fairchild hired an extraordinary technologist that could figure out how to actually make the products: Andy Grove.  Noyce was the idea man – prolific in his inventions and ideas.  He absolutely loved spewing out note after note of ideas, but was never much to follow through with them.  Gordon Moore and Andy Grove worked tirelessly at implementing Noyce’s ideas – and to make Fairchild a success.

One of the ideas Noyce and Grove worked on was a means of connecting together more than one transistor on a piece of silicon to form a circuit that was “integrated” meaning the multi-component circuit was together in one package.  Companies like Fairchild had been making integrated circuits called hybrids for years – but these were actual tiny handmade circuits put together with painstaking labor that were then packaged in a single enclosure.  No one had fabricated an actual circuit one one piece of silicon or germanium, the material transistors are made of.

Their project to integrate a circuit onto a single piece of transistor material was a side project – a novelty they hoped would work and if it did – they hoped it could be applied in such a way as to interest potential customers.  Then came a big surprise.  Another smaller company, Texas Instruments, announced and patented the world’s first integrated circuit.  It was the brainchild of Jack Kilby an engineer at TI.  It was crude, it was based entirely on germanium but it worked and for this effort, Kilby was eventually awarded the Nobel prize.  Panic struck at Fairchild as the engineers struggled to get second best and, a year later in 1960, Fairchild introduced the world’s first silicon integrated circuit (a flip flop) and we were off to the races.  The Fairchild integrated circuit solved many of the limiting factors of the TI version and much of what they invented is still used today.

The story meanders through the building of solid state memory IC’s at Fairchild, the departure of Noyce, Grove and Moore to form Intel Corporation and the subsequent invention of the microprocessor by Ted Hoff (at the insistence of Noyce) working to show a Japanese calculator company a better way to build a hand held calculator.  Noyce himself was a great manager and believed in empowering employees at every step of the process in building a company.  Stock options, employee participation and startup mentalities in Silicon Valley were mostly inventions of Robert Noyce who became know as the Mayor of Silicon Valley over time.

Our story stays the path with the integrated circuit and how it applies to audio amplification.  It wouldn’t be for another 30 years where the paths of Intel’s microprocessor, the integrated circuit and high-end audio cross paths once again with digital audio.

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Hi. I’m Michael Vronsky - the Commercial Manager here. If you’d like details of where to buy PS AUDIO equipment AT SPECIAL PRICES (but only for our members) then please contact me at commercial@hifianswers.com Thanks. Michael.

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  • Cartel

    A fascinating story!
    Thank you.