Obscure Creators of the World #1 – Federico Faggin

The people we know about are usually the ones with publicity staffs. Their success depends on how widely known they are. This is obviously the case for sports figures, actors, musicians, and politicians, but also applies to technicals like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. They may make quite genuine contributions, but it’s showmanship that gets them widely known. In Jobs’ case it was his masterful Apple presentations, and for Musk it’s the playfulness in his products, like launching a Tesla Roadster into space as a test weight in the debut of the Falcon Heavy rocket, or having a Santa Claus mode on Teslas that replaces turn signal clicks with jingle bells.

Yet a lot of the people who make the biggest contributions are hardly known at all. This series will try to tell their stories. There are a vast number of such people, but let me limit it with the following rules:

  • They have to have made at least two major inventions
  • They don’t have their name on a company or process.
  • My wife has never heard of them!

This was all prompted by my reading of the autobiography of this first entry, Federico Faggin: “Silicon – From the Invention of the Microprocessor to the New Science of Consciousness”. Faggin is associated with four major innovations:

  • The self-aligned silicon-gate field-effect transistor, which has defined the modern age more than any other single invention. (Fairchild, 1969)
  • The first microprocessor, the 4004 (Intel 1971)
  • The first usable microprocessor, the Z80 (Zilog 1975)
  • The capacitive touchpad and touchscreen (Synaptics, 1992)

You are using silicon-gate FETs right now as you’re reading this. You may also be using a touchpad on a laptop or a touch screen on a tablet or phone. The Z80 still exists as a minute processor inside remote controls, but the 4004 is only in museums. My friends Tim McNerney and Fred Huettig re-created the layout on a 22″ x 16″ board with individually packaged transistors, and it’s in the Intel Museum in San Jose! You can download working simulations of it at the site, 4004.com.

How on earth could one person have contributed to such a range of inventions? Reading over this, it looks to me like the following:

  1. He was a precocious teen, but could never get his father’s approval.
  2. He grew up in a time of turmoil (born in Italy in 1941, in the midst of WW II) and in an isolated rural area of Veneto, the province around Venice, giving him a longing for the bright lights
  3. He emigrated to Silicon Valley in 1968, in the midst of the one of the world’s most innovative times and places.
  4. He never stayed at companies for long. Each of the above was done at a different place. He never felt truly appreciated, and would show them by doing something great at the next place.
  5. He had a solid marriage and family that sustained him through a lot of career turmoil.

The world is full of talent, but in addition it takes restlessness, drive, and luck to achieve this much. That restlessness is also why he isn’t better known. When he came up with the self-aligned silicon-gate FET, his colleagues at Fairchild were already planning to start Intel. His boss told him to go ahead and present it at a big tech conference. He asked if they shouldn’t patent it first, and was told not to bother. Fairchild was already invested in metal-gate FETs, and not that interested in his scheme. Yet Intel picked it up immediately!

Still, Intel was far more interested in building RAM chips than logic, since everyone was desperate for them. Its hard-driving CEO, Andy Grove, wanted the immediate profit from RAMs rather than a slowly maturing market like processors. The 4004 was an abandoned side project that was given to this newbie to keep him busy. When he actually succeeded with it, he got to do the 8008 and the 8080, which were far more successful. That’s the Pinball Theory of engineering careers, where the main benefit of winning is that you get to play again. He and Grove still didn’t get along, though, so he split to form Zilog. Intel then wrote him out of the history of the 4004, crediting it to its instruction set architect, Ted Hoff, instead.

Zilog missed the transition to 32-bit processors, so he left there too. He kicked around the Valley for a while, working on really interesting things like digital phones and analog neural networks, but nothing quite clicked. Synaptics was in trouble in the 1990s when he and his team finally figured out how to do touch pads correctly. By that time he was too senior to get into detailed engineering.

He was also into his next interest, mysticism. It’s an odd direction for a engineer and entrepreneur, but he came upon it through direct experience. In 1990 he was with his family on a Christmas holiday at Lake Tahoe. He was restless and got up late at night to have a drink of water and and look at the dark, mysterious lake:

When I went back to bed and tried to fall asleep again, I felt a powerful rush of energy emerge from my chest like nothing I had ever felt before and could not even imagine possible. The feeling was love, but a love so intense and so incredibly fulfilling that it surpassed any other notions I had about love. Even more unbelievable was the fact that I knew I was the source of this love. I experienced it as a broad beam of shimmering white light, alive and beatific, gushing from my heart with incredible strength.

“Silicon”, pg 160

This is not how businessmen usually talk! He had been raised Catholic but had been a dissatisfied materialist for his adult life. The latter half of the book discusses his attempts to understand this and the other extraordinary experiences he has had. He argues for Panpsychism, the idea that mind is inherent in everything. My own mind just slides off of these things, since I’ve never had such experiences. Still, he gets big respect points for caring about something besides success, and it makes this different from your standard business memoir.

So a person who spent his career thinking about the right way to do things in electronics, turns in the end to what the right way is to think about existence. It’s taking on the biggest questions of all! All our careers should expand this way.

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