Silicon Valley Pioneer at Age 16 Survived on 5 Cents of Carrots a Day

(p. A23) Jay Last, a physicist who helped create the silicon chips that power the world’s computers, and who was among the eight entrepreneurs whose company laid the technical, financial and cultural foundation for Silicon Valley, died on Nov. 11 [2021] in Los Angeles.

. . .

Ultimately, he agreed to join the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory because it sat in the Northern California valley where he had spent a summer harvesting fruit after hitchhiking there from his home in Pennsylvania steel country.

But he and seven of his collaborators at the lab clashed with Dr. Shockley, who later became infamous for his theory that Black people were genetically inferior in intelligence to white people. They quickly left the lab to create their own transistor company. They later came to be called “the traitorous eight,” and their company, Fairchild Semiconductor, is now seen as ground zero for what became known as Silicon Valley.

. . .

With the blessing of his parents — and carrying a letter from the local police chief saying he was not running away from home — he hitchhiked to San Jose, Calif., which was then a small farming town. He had planned on making a little money picking fruit, but he arrived before the harvest began.

Until it did, he lived, as he often recalled in later years, on a nickel’s worth of carrots a day. Whenever he faced a difficult situation, he said in an interview for the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now the Science History Institute) in 2004, he told himself, “I got through that when I was 16, and this is not that bad a problem.”

. . .

Using materials like silicon and germanium, Dr. Shockley and two other scientists had shown how to build the tiny transistors that would one day be used to store and move information in the form of an electrical signal. The question was how to connect them together to form a larger machine.

After using chemical compounds to etch the transistors into a sheet of silicon, Dr. Last and his colleagues could have cut each one from the sheet and connected them with individual wires, much like any other electrical device. But this was enormously difficult, inefficient and expensive.

One of the founders of Fairchild, Robert Noyce, suggested an alternative method, and this was realized by a team Dr. Last oversaw. They developed a way of building both the transistors and the wires into the same sheet of silicon.

This method is still used to build silicon chips, whose transistors are now exponentially smaller than those manufactured in the 1960s, in accordance with Moore’s Law, the famous maxim laid down by another Fairchild founder, Gordon Moore.

For the full obituary, see:

Cade Metz. “Jay Last, 92, Physicist and a Pioneer of Silicon Valley.” The New York Times (Monday, November 22, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Nov. 20, 2021, and has the title “Jay Last, One of the Rebels Who Founded Silicon Valley, Dies at 92.”)

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