2017-07-21 / Front Page

The old guard of new tech, part 2

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


From the heritage page on the Fairchild Semiconductor website, a look at the South Portland plant production line, soon after it opened in 1962, when it was located in a former car dealership garage in Mill Creek (now home to Back in Motion Physical Therapy) when almost all workers on the assembly line were women. (Courtesy photo) From the heritage page on the Fairchild Semiconductor website, a look at the South Portland plant production line, soon after it opened in 1962, when it was located in a former car dealership garage in Mill Creek (now home to Back in Motion Physical Therapy) when almost all workers on the assembly line were women. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Continued this week is a conversation with four early employees of Fairchild Semiconductor in South Portland (now ON Semiconductor), who gathered July 5 to reminisce about the birth of the tech sector in Maine.

Present for the reunion were Donald Curry, 82, of South Portland, who started with Fairchild as a salesman in 1963, eventually rising to the role of marketing manager, a post 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, who joined the company as an assembly and test engineer in 1966 and was quality and reliability manager for the firm’s digital division when he left in1978; and Jim Smaha, 82 a Portland native who now lives in California, who started at Fairchild in 1963 as a quality assurance engineer, later becoming operations manager of the facility.

SENTRY: By 1970, Fairchild had more than 3,000 employees in South Porland.

CURRY: That’s right, as many as the S.D. Warren plant, which was absolutely amazing at the time, but then came the recession. Some people are afraid of what might happen if ON decides to close the South Portland site, but in the evolution of semiconductors in Maine, the real bottom came in the period from 1970 to 1972.

SMAHA: That was probably the biggest crisis we ever had. The recession was horrible. Book-to-bill is the amount of business you take in versus what you ship out. Normally it’s healthy when it’s above 1, say 1.1 or 1.2. Before the recession we sometimes got as high as 1.5. When we had recessions, the media would go crazy if the book-to-bill would go to 0.8. But in 1970, for us it went negative. It didn’t just go below one, it went below zero. We were fighting for our lives. I’ve been through a lot of recessions, but that was the worse one. In the semiconductor industry it was worse that what they’re calling the great recession, in 2008.

CURRY: Every single department lost people. I forget the exact dates but human resources had one Monday morning when it lined up over 20 busses and many taxis TOtake those with pink slips home. Can you imagine something like that happening today? The plant staff was aware of this coming and it was silently carried out. I can’t imagine what the employees thought when the staff meeting broke up and all seven staff managers walked out of the conference room with tears in their eyes. And the selection was done on the basis of last in, first out.

SENTY: Why was 1970 so hard on semiconductors in particular?

SMAHA: It was a very young industry then and everyone was trying to get a piece of the action. It’s future was infinite. Still is, by the way. It’s got no boundaries to it. Nobody sees it today because the technology is so hidden, but from the computers in your car to artificial intelligence, its all semi-conductors that makes that possible.

SENTRY: In the early years though, from the opening to of the South Portland operation in 1962, did you have any idea how big what you were doing was going to be?

SMITH: I certainly didn’t. I could never have projected where it is today. Back then, for every chip South Portland made, you could almost name what each one did, where it went, and what product it would go in. Today, I defy anybody, from the top guy to any engineer, to tell you what every one of the products they have out there today can do. It’s just so phenomenal. Its not just that there are so many, they’re each so complicated.

SMAHA: I think all of us know we were part of something exciting. We weren’t smart enough know where it might lead, like (company co-founder) Bob Noyce, but we knew we were making the future. And what you did today was no longer good enough tomorrow, things were changing that fast.

SMITH: For a young guy to get in on the ground floor of something like that, it was very exciting.

SENTRY: Was there a particular moment or when it really hit you the magnitude of the change you were part of?

SMAHA: We were so busy making the chips, trying to make things go, I don’t think any of us could envision how much it would change everyday life.

SENTRY: And was there a product that really made a difference.

SMAHA: After Bob and his crew built the plant and got it up and running, we built three wafer plants, and that’s when the run really began. It was around that point that a lot of the Around 1965 when we began fabricating wafers, that was the cornerstone for South Portland. That was so capital intensive, and so difficult to manage and run, that once those were embedded there, that made it a much more solid operation, and much more difficult for anyone to come in and shut down. To build a wafer fab shop today would cost $8 billion dollars. I don’t know what ON has in mind, but I know when National Semiconductor bought Fairchild, we had no intention of shutting it down.

CURRY: The semiconductor industry is alive in Maine right now only because, under Jim’s leadership it pulled around at that time. If Fairchild had closed in 1972, that would have closed out the industry entirely. Nothing else would have happened. It couldn’t have got restarted again in 100 years.

SENTRY: What do you think having Fairchild here meant to South Portland, and the state?

SMITH: I think it meant a lot. I had just got out of the service, and had interviews all over the place because of my background, having graduated with a degree in physics. Having Fairchild here was an opportunity to come back to my hometown, and I really appreciated that. Otherwise, I was not in pulp and paper, so there was nothing else that was going to keep me here.

SMAHA: I was gone. There was nothing here for me, so I was going to be gone.

CURRY: And a lot of people, once they got a change to stay in Maine, were hardpressed to leave. There were a lot of people here who were offered jobs with corporate out in California, but would not take then. I was offered a position out there 1973. My wife and kids were like, bye, send money, but, of course, even for more money, I did not want to leave Maine.

SMAHA: It’s worth noting that after National Semiconductor bought Fairchild, there was a certain amount of the management team we really wanted to keep. There was a guy named Kirk Pond, we said, ‘We want you to stay when can you move to California?’ He was from Texas originally but he said, I live here in Maine. We said, well, we can’t have you running the logic business from out of South Portland. He said, why can’t you? So we said okay. So, not only Fairchild allow a lot of people stay here, to live and work in Maine, many of those people were so good they kept the business here, just to be where they wanted to live. He later let the charge to spin Fairchild back off into its own separate company from National, and was its CEO until a few years back.

SMITH: But for those who wanted that opportunity, it was there. All of us can name people running plants in Southeast Asia who started right here in South Portland. And it’s that way today still.

SMAHA: I think it was not just the workers at Fairchild who benefited, but all of the ancillary businesses and the opportunities that brought.

MEYER: I remember almost as soon as we opened several tool and die shops opened up on Congress Street in Portland to support us. The airport got a big boost, right from the beginning, we’d be shipping product out every day, every night. In the early days I had a fella filling of a station wagon and hauling things over constantly to ship out all over the United States.

SMAHA: Fairchild is something Maine was incredibly fortunate to get in the 1960s and to do anything that would jeopardize that today would be incredibly short-sighted, I think.

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