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Toasting the birthday of the integrated circuit

Hundreds gather at the Computer History Museum to celebrate the anniversary of the invention of the integrated circuit and two of its inventors, Gordon Moore and Jay Last.

Jay Last and Gordon Moore, two of the most famous surviving men of the team that first created the planar integrated circuit, celebrate the IC's 50th anniversary at the Computer History Museum. James Martin/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Like any good 50th birthday party, Friday night's soiree included wine, hors d'oeuvres, and a gathering of old friends toasting a half century of fond memories and achievements. But as the event wore on at the Computer History Museum here, it became clear that with a birthday of this magnitude, it was hard to overstate the impact of the integrated circuit not just on the technology industry, but on modern society.

It was in 1959 that the men of Fairchild Semiconductor first created the planar integrated circuit. On Friday, two of the most famous surviving men of that team, Gordon Moore and Jay Last, were feted by 400 friends, former colleagues, and fans for their roles in creating the modern structure of the integrated circuit that today powers everything from the pocket-size iPhone to Google's giant server farms.

Opening up the evening's event, John Hollar, CEO of the Computer History Museum, put the impact of the IC this way: "It became the electronics technology through which we have created our contemporary digital world. It is indispensable to modern life."

"It's hard to believe that 50 years have passed. The reality of today is beyond our wildest imaginations of those days."
--Jay Last

Moore and Last, both 80, were part of a group of eight men who famously left Shockley Semiconductor to strike out on their own and form Fairchild Semiconductor, which became "the Google of its day," according to Leslie Berlin, Silicon Valley archivist for Stanford University, who also spoke at the event. The contributions of Jean Hoerni and Robert Noyce, both deceased, were also recounted by Berlin, and historian and author Christophe Lecuyer.

But Moore and Last, who both gave thoughtful, lighthearted speeches, were humble about the recognition being bestowed upon them for their work that began in the late 1950s.

"It's hard to believe that 50 years have passed," Last said. "The reality of today is beyond our wildest imaginations of those days."

Back then, they were racing against time and Texas Instruments, which was also working on building its own integrated circuit and would eventually win the patent on it after a long, drawn-out legal battle once the planar integrated circuit was built. It wasn't immediately obvious back in those days what the impact would be.

"It was a nice addition to the product line, but it wasn't completely clear it was going to be revolutionary," Moore said.

Moore went on to treat the audience--many of them his former colleagues at Fairchild and Intel, which he co-founded--to a brief history of how the IC came to be.

Gordon Moore
Gordon Moore reminisces with reporters before appearing on-stage at the Computer History Museum. James Martin/CNET News

He recounted the days when the eight of them, including Noyce and Hoerni, staged a mutiny at Shockley and struck out on their own, determined to find an existing company that wanted to use them to build out a semiconductor business.

Moore said the men, most of whom were in their late 20s at the time, weren't sure how to go about it, so they opened The Wall Street Journal and circled the names of 30 companies they thought might be interested in their services. None bit. But when they met Sherman Fairchild, who owned Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation, their luck changed.

In just three years, the men of Fairchild Semiconductor had figured out the structure that would shape the commercial and consumer electronics revolution about to unfold over the next half century. Their achievement of building the planar IC can be simplified this way, as Last put it: "We put all the devices on the same piece of silicon, connected them altogether, and isolated them one from another."

But they made other indispensable choices. For example, they decided to keep a layer of silicon oxide on top of the wafer, thanks to Hoerni's insistence, at a time when that went against most accepted knowledge in the industry. Silicon's potential seemed limited at the time, except in special applications, Last remembered. The Fairchild men also paved the way for the mass production of chips by building increasingly small devices on increasingly large arrays.

Moore also had another lasting impact on technology, thanks to an article he wrote in 1965. In it, he laid out his assertion that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits would double every year for the foreseeable future. We know it today as Moore's Law, and it is applied broadly to the increasing capability of most electronic devices.

While Moore joked that it's "obviously as important as Newton's Law," he did acknowledge that at some point, it will no longer hold true. "You get to the point where you can't shrink things anymore. But that won't stop innovation."

As to what's next for the industry, Moore and Last agreed that "silicon reigns supreme" for now. Moore said that whatever technology does come next to replace the silicon chip, it would have to "spring full blown." As he sees it, "Silicon technology now is (the result of) a few billion dollars of R&D. To compete with that would require a monstrous investment." For his part, Last said he sees the 21st century as the century of biology, where "electronics with new human biological processes will expand."

Both men said that half a century ago they never expected to be where they are now, but that they wouldn't change a thing.

Though he was speaking for himself, Last could have been voicing the feelings of the entire electronics industry, with his closing statement: "It's been a great ride for me these last 50 years."