2017-07-14 / Front Page

The old guard of new technolgy

Early Fairchild employees recall the birth of city’s semiconductor industry
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Early employees of Fairchild Semiconductor, now ON Semiconductor, from the early days of South Portland’s tech sector, gathered July 5 for a reunion at the Preble Street home of Donald Curry include, from left Curry, Russell Smith of Cape Elizabeth, Bob Meyer of Freeport, and Jim Smaha, now of California. (Duke Harrington photo) Early employees of Fairchild Semiconductor, now ON Semiconductor, from the early days of South Portland’s tech sector, gathered July 5 for a reunion at the Preble Street home of Donald Curry include, from left Curry, Russell Smith of Cape Elizabeth, Bob Meyer of Freeport, and Jim Smaha, now of California. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — When Fairchild Semiconductor sold last year to Arizona-based ON Semiconductor, word quickly spread that Fairchild’s South Portland production facility, located at 333 Western Ave., might soon close, putting hundreds of people out of work.

Those rumors had been running rampant since early 2016, when Gov. Paul LePage said during a town hall forum in Orono that one southern Maine company was about to shed 900 jobs. At a later forum in Biddeford, April 19, LePage then upped the ante to two companies and as many as 1,500 jobs.

“Every single job,” LePage said, paid well above Maine’s median income, adding that those workers were likely to get pink slipped that summer.

Talk quickly turned to a logical conclusion, that if ON bailed on South Portland, Texas Instruments would almost certainly abandon ship as well.

More recently, the South Portland City Council met in executive session June 19 to talk about “conserving the condition or use of” the ON Semiconductor facility. In an interview the following day, City Manager Scott Morelli said the closed-door meeting was only to discuss proposed amendments to ON’s tax increment financing (TIF) deal with South Portland.

“It was all very boilerplate stuff, really,” he said. “They’re not going anyway. They are definitely staying here in South Portland.”

Coincidental to concern about the fate of South Portland’s semiconductor industry, four men instrumental to the birth and early growth of the city’s tech sector met July 5 at the Preble Street home of Donald Curry, to reminisce about the early days at an company that not only altered forever the face of South Portland, but arguably, the entire state of Maine, as well.

Present for the reunion, were Curry, 82, who started with Fairchild as a salesman in 1963, eventually rising to the role of marketing manager, which he held from 1969 to 1975; Bob Meyer, 85, of Freeport, who helped found the South Portland plant in 1962 and worked for the company until 1970; Russell Smith, 77, of Cape Elizabeth, a quality control manager from 1966 to 1978; and Jim Smaha, 82 a Portland native now living in California, who started at Fairchild in 1963 as a quality assurance engineer, later becoming operations manager of the facility. Smaha moved out to Fairchild’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California, in 1972 and left the company for National Semiconductor (now part of Texas Instruments) in 1974, which he then brought to South Portland.

Given the historic nature of the gathering, which may never happen again with so many early Fairchild figures having already died Curry invited the Sentry to the reunion, to record the recollections of those present.

“To my mind, it is simply a gathering of great people who worked very hard some five decades ago to bring a new technology to an area that did not have one,” Curry said. “The things they experienced should be recorded, I think, because once we are gone, that kind of detail will be lost forever.

SENTRY: What was life like at the Fairchild plant in those early years?

CURRY: Actually, the plant was not originally where it is now. It started in a Studebaker garage in Mill Creek, where Back in Motion (Physical Therapy) is now.

MEYER: I was one of the people who started the plant, June 9, 1962. We started in that garage while the city of South Portland finished off the shell of a building they sold us, along with 20 acres of land on Western Avenue, for $200,000 [note: $1.6 million in 2017 dollars]. We did not move into the plant that’s out there now until New Year’s Day 1963.

SMITH: And there was nothing out there on Western Avenue at the time.

SENTRY: So, you guys worked with

the pigs?

CURRY: (laughs) That’s right, you’ve got it. Where the Maine Mall is today was a pig farm at that time. That was right across from Fairchild.

SMAHA: And it was mostly all bare land out there at the time. I remember I would drive into work in this cheap little vehicle I had at the time, and the wind would come howling across the fields out there, it’d nearly blow me right off the road.

SENTRY: The Back in Motion building should probably have some kind of historic maker on it. What was it like there?

MEYER: As I recall, there were about 62 female employees on the production line, with five of us men acting as managers.

SENTRY: I doubt most people know the workforce making semiconductors here in Maine when the technology was brand new? Why women.

CURRY: They’re smarter then men [laughs]. But it was mostly because they were so much better, at least at that time, at the fine detail work that was required. It was a lot of working with tweezers under microscopes and required very fine motor skills and a practiced sewing hand. Their talents were greater than men for the required task.

SMAHA: Men first came on after the move to Western Avenue, at first as maintenance, then as electricians, engineers, managers and later one when we built three fab areas that actually made the wafers and chips.

CURRY: That came along at the right time because by then a lot of the manual assembly stuff was starting to go overseas.

SMITH: In Singapore they were paying 5 cents an hour. At that time we were paying something like $1.40.

CURRY: So it was cheaper to make things here, ship them to Singapore for assembly, they ship it back here for testing before going to customers.

But the draw that helped bring Fairchild here initially was a 50,000-square-foot shell of a building South Portland had put up out on Western Avenue, something it did under then city manager Bernal B. Allen purely on speculation, to try and get a business park started in South Portland.

So, while that was being readied, the ladies began training and testing with microscopes, silicon wafers and other issues unknown to citizens of the area.

SENTRY: When you worked there semiconductors were brand new, correct?

CURRY: Yes, they took the place of vacuum tubes.

SMAHA: Before coming to Fairchild, I worked at Raytheon in Lewiston. They had opened up a germanium alloy transistor plant. That was the technology of the day. Three years later along came Fairchild with the planar manufacturing process that a lot of people there developed. It was hugely innovative and became pervasive — it’s still in use today — and it just wiped out everybody who was not in that technology. So, a lot of the people at Raytheon, like me, ended up working in South Portland. Fairchild’s technology was just absolutely dominant in its day.

SENTRY: Even with the lure of the spec building, why did Fairchild choose to open in South Portland, or even Maine at all?

MEYER: Money. It was all about the cost of labor, but more importantly the availability of labor.

SMITH: And it wasn’t just cheap labor, it was efficient labor. It was very good labor. Even then, the textile mills were beginning to shut down. So you had this very steady, very dependable labor pool that was used to working in highly detailed manufacturing conditions. So, the ladies who started things, they all came out of the textile mills. They were available and great workers. Phenomenal.

SMAHA: And Robert Noyce, who co-founded Fairchild in 1957, he had a place here on the coast in Maine. Many people here still remember his first wife Elizabeth, who died not to long ago and was a great humanitarian, donating millions of dollars here in Maine. Robert Noyce made a fortune from co-creating the microchip and from leaving Fairchild with Gordon Moore in 1968 to found Intel, one of the most successful companies in history.

Noyce was very much in favor of brining Fairchild here, but it was really due to Charlie Sporck, who established the plant here. He wanted to tap the professional and technical expertise they had no access to out in California. Keep in mind, there was no such thing as “Silicon Valley” at the time. And someone like a Bob Meyer, in those days, he wasn’t going to move out to California.

MEYER: Would not have even considered it.

SMAHA: And then there was the building South Portland had put up. That was a big carrot. By its peak in 1971, there were 3,000 people working in Fairchild in South Portland.

It was soon after that, however, during the recession of 1972, when the low point came. In a scenario not unlike the image Gov. LePage has conjured, more than 1,000 workers were let go en masse. Next week, the Fairchild reunion continues with memories of that time, the recovery and arrival of National Semiconductor, and thoughts on what the industry and meant to the city and state.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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