- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

By Jeffrey Zygmont
Perseus, $25, 245 pages

It was the bubble that didn't burst. While the foibles of Martha Stewart and Ken Lay signify the excesses of an era, the history of the microchip related in "Microchip: An idea, Its Genesis, and the Revolution it Created" by Jeffrey Zygmont is something of a morality play about what went right with the technology revolution, and remains right with America today.
As Mr. Zygmont writes in the Prologue, "In the brief, recent history of the chip [they have been around for about 40 years], the specific discoveries and innovations occurred spontaneously because intelligent, inquisitive and ambitious people intersected with a culture that encouraged and rewarded them." That culture was the American one, and the individuals he celebrates are uniquely American.
His account is not comprehensive (although it covers quite a bit of ground), but rather representative a collection of essays built around common themes . Nonetheless, the factual foundation is solid, and the characters are fleshed out enough for their principal attributes to shine. Many of them were almost accidental participants in the revolution they created, and Mr. Zygmont takes delight in showing the happy accidents and coincidences that shaped literally in some cases the microchip.
The author begins his tale with Jack Kilby, who could have easily become a model for Michael Douglas in "Falling Down" a frustrated inventor stuck for a decade in a dead-end job in Milwaukee. He found the cure to his frustrations by moving to a Dallas and starting work for an ambitious company called Texas Instruments (TI). Arriving there against every expectation on paper he wasn't even qualified for the research job he took his resume hit the desk of an acquaintance at TI who had a hunch about his promise, at exactly the time that the company had decided to put more money into microelectronics. Mr. Kilby went on to win the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing integrated circuits.
Mr. Kilby, in turn, gave the dream of inventing the pocket calculator to another unexpected, and on paper, even more unqualified choice, the self-educated Jerry Merryman. At the time (1965) the most common components of the calculator the key-pad, the display screen or the chip that could do the calculations and yet fit into a small case had not even been invented. Nor had the term "pocket calculator" Mr. Kilby told Mr. Merryman that what he wanted was a sort of "sliderule computer." The product that Mr. Merryman produced after two years of intensive labor wasn't quite ready for the market, but those hurdles were soon overcome by competitors.
The high-school level calculations done by Mr. Merryman's machines were, in turn, given graduate functioning by another inventor. Rather than doing the job he was ostensibly being paid to do designing a promotions campaign for chips already headed for the market for a struggling new company named Intel Ted Hoff took microchips to school. Dissatisfied with the clumsy circuit design of chips Intel was setting up for a Japanese calculator company, Mr. Hoff received permission from his boss to try to design his own, as a side project. By making them multi-functional (rather than only usable to do a single type of calculation), Mr. Hoff managed to create the first microprocessor the first computer on a single chip.
Not that everyone wanted it. In fact, as Mr. Zygmont tells it, the chip business itself almost never developed. Some businesses fought against developments in electronics that threatened their interests. Other firms spent enormous resources chasing technological dead-ends, or got caught off balance and became victims of the market's creative destruction. Wang Laboratories is one of the best examples of the last, but there were many others. Businesses found unexpected uses for the new chips that allowed microchip companies to survive, and eventually thrive. One of the first customers for Mr. Hoff's multi-functioning microchips was a meatpacker, who used them for more precise packaging of bacon.
The book fairly buzzes long, one unlikely actor after another almost sprinting across the stage, too busy designing microchips or finding market niches to make much conversation. There aren't many secondary players like wives or children, and there's not much psychoanalysis either, since what drives these individuals is transparent curiosity, competition and cash. While most of the characters here are brilliant, there are few intellectuals, since what engages the energy and imagination of the subjects appears to be simply the job at hand. One is inclined to think that they even found it hard to take the time for an interview with Mr. Zygmont.
The author reflects that hurried, clipped cadence in his writing one sentence reads, "The atmosphere in which the two men worked was charged, energized, and scintillated with hints, hunches, thoughts, theories, fragments, reports, gossip, threats, suspicions and boasts."
For his speed, Mr. Zygmont has a fairly deft hand with technical descriptions, although a glossary, or even a couple of general diagrams, would help. Moreover, he never forgets that silicon wafers are actually specks of sand, or as he prefers, flecks of stone.
It's astonishing that individuals could have created such marvels out of the sand beneath their feet. Yet, thanks to personal ingenuity and a free market that allowed them to thrive, neither the wonders nor the revenue from microchips show any sign of tapering off. Indeed, the future of microchips seems as full of promise as the society which allowed them to be built in the first place. Mr. Zygmont's history of microchips is well worth the read, if for no other reason then to remind us of the bullish culture still boiling beneath the stock market bubbles.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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