IEEE Milestone Honors Invention Of Planar Process, Integrated Circuit

Work of Hoerni and Noyce to be recognized

6 April 2009

Isaac Asimov, the great science and science-fiction writer, is said to have described the invention of the IC as “the most important moment since man emerged as a life form.” Strong words, to be sure, but not easily proven wrong given all that has resulted from that innovation. Or rather two innovations, because the IC’s invention is inextricably bound up with the creation of the planar process for semiconductor fabrication. So much so that as part of the activities celebrating the 50th anniversary in May of the invention of the IC, the IEEE Santa Clara Valley Section in California plans to unveil an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing honoring two individuals. One is Jean A. Hoerni, for his invention of the planar process, the other is Robert N. Noyce, who realized that Hoerni’s process would allow many devices to be integrated onto a single piece of silicon.

As Noyce wrote in his lab notebook on 23 January 1959, “In many applications now it would be desirable to make multiple devices on a single piece of silicon in order to be able to make interconnections between devices as part of the manufacturing process, and thus reduce size, weight, etc., as well as cost per active element.”

FAR FROM OBVIOUS To engineers raised in an era of mobile phones and personal computers, the basic ideas of Hoerni and Noyce may seem obvious. They thought to shield sensitive semiconductor junctions against contamination by covering them with a protective planar layer of silicon dioxide, and to use that incredibly good insulating layer as a base on which to deposit metallic interconnections. In fact, their ideas were revolutionary.

“The inventions of Hoerni and Noyce represent the major inflection point in the semiconductor industry, which went from a single transistor per chip to the IC—an industry with sales of over [US] $200 billion in 2008," says Dick Ahrons, the Santa Clara Valley Section’s milestone coordinator.

SPEAKERS The dedication of the milestone is one of several events to be held between 6 and 8 May in a joint effort of IEEE, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., and the Chemical Heritage Foundation of Philadelphia. IEEE Life Fellow Gordon Moore who, along with Noyce and others cofounded Fairchild Semiconductor and then Intel Corp., is scheduled to speak at the milestone’s unveiling, as is 2008 IEEE President Lewis Terman; Brian Halla, chairman and CEO of National Semiconductor; and Michael Riordan, coauthor of Crystal Fire, a history of the transistor’s development. At the reception following the unveiling, Moore will also give a talk on the contributions of Hoerni and Noyce.

Jay Last, another of Fairchild Semiconductor’s cofounders, also is slated to speak at the reception, discussing the creative effort required to turn a concept into a practical reality. Other scheduled speakers are Christophe Lécuyer, author of Making Silicon Valley, and Leslie Berlin, Noyce’s biographer.

The milestone plaque is to be unveiled at 4 p.m. on 8 May at the site of the original Fairchild Semiconductor plant on Charleston Road in Palo Alto. The Computer History Museum has set up additional lectures tied to the dedication, as well as community activities for its yearlong Salute to the Semiconductor program.

The inscription on the plaque will read:


The 1959 invention of the Planar Process by Jean A. Hoerni and the Integrated Circuit (IC) based on planar technology by Robert N. Noyce catapulted the semiconductor industry into the silicon IC era. This pair of pioneering inventions led to the present IC industry, which today supplies a wide and growing variety of advanced semiconductor products used throughout the world.

May 2009


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