2014-02-14 / Community

A Window on the Past

Fairchild Semiconductor brought city to forefront
By Craig Skelton
South Portland Historical Society

A Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation brochure shows how tiny one of their chips is in comparison to a dime. (Courtesy photo) A Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation brochure shows how tiny one of their chips is in comparison to a dime. (Courtesy photo) I am reading a book about Henry Ford that a good friend picked up for me at the Friends of the Library Book Sale. In it, the author describes how a man was asked, in the year 1915, “What is the greatest accomplishment of your time?” The man’s reply was, “The Model T.” Fast forward 100 years and someone asked the same question today is likely to say the “iPhone or the laptop computer.”

One hundred years ago the Model T, or the automobile in general, would have allowed you to travel farther away from your home and more freely and unchained than travelers were by train travel. Today, with a laptop computer or smart phone, you can instantly communicate with anyone, anywhere around the world or access information on that same scale. Hardly a few decades ago you might have talked on the phone while tied by a curly cord to the other end in your kitchen, where access to information required a trip to the library or corresponding with someone through the mail, taking days if not weeks to find your answer.

True, the Model T was a great accomplishment, yet it would not have happened without the innovative creation of mass production using the assembly line. Henry Ford’s greatest accomplishment wasn’t in fact the Model T, it was the assembly line where, by 1915, had produced hundreds of thousands of that car.

The laptop computer or cell phones, on the other hand, would not exist today if it were not for the invention of the transistor and significant achievements in semiconductor technology that happened right here in South Portland. People from around the world perhaps give little thought to the amazing and tiny microchip found inside almost every electronic device around us.

Fairchild Semiconductor opened the South Portland facility on Western Avenue in 1962 shortly after a patent was granted to its co-founder Robert Noyce for a monolithic integrated circuit. The process involved etching multiple transistors on a single wafer made from silicon extracted from sand. Prior to his development of a new process for making multiple transistors on each wafer, a transistor could only be made one at a time. Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation launched with an order from IBM for 100 transistors.

Nothing like the dirty and smelly assembly line churning out the Model T, the fabrication of wafers containing integrated circuits, more commonly known as chips, is performed by folks dressed in “bunny suits” where they look more like astronauts in rooms that are cleaner than the operating rooms at local hospitals. Manufacturing something smaller than the eye can see has to be done in a dust free environment because a simple piece of dust will ruin the intricate and microscopic product. Vibration is also a factor in manufacturing chips. The facility most recently built next to the Portland Jetport has an incredibly thick foundation specifically designed to dampen the vibration from jets landing on the adjacent runway.

It is amazing to think that something made here in our hometown is shipped to computer makers and manufacturers of electronic devices around the world and has an incredible impact on our lives, as well as almost everyone else on the planet.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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