First Person: Julius Blank

Detail of a core memory plane. Magnetic core memory was an early form of random access computer memory and a precursor to semiconductors like those engineered by Blank. The fine mesh grid had to be assembled by hand under a microscope. CHF Collections, Photo by Gregory Tobias. 

Julius Blank, a co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor, passed away last month. In his obituary The New York Times described Blank as one of the two key engineers who built the microchip machinery that continues to power our world.

Born in 1925, Blank received much of the training he later employed at Fairchild while working his way through school. Blank’s first job, as a fifteen year old college student at CCNY, was in a factory. The work motivated him to expand his education; in his 2006 oral history he explained, “I decided I needed to get a little bit more knowledge about practical matters and I wanted to become a machinist. While I was going to school I went to another school at night at Brooklyn Tech where I learned how to operate lathes, machines, read blueprints, and that kind of stuff. I got a job as a machinist after that."

With little spare time between his job, classes at City College, and classes at Brooklyn Tech, Blank still found some time to learn informally about chemical processes and chemical engineering. He did not have time to choose a major, however; the U.S. had entered Word War II in 1941, and, Blank remembered, “On my eighteenth birthday I got a letter in the mail, ‘Please report for active duty on 5 July 1943,’ which I did.”

Blank’s enlistment in the Army provided him with more engineering opportunities. After being injured in December 1944 during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, Blank was transferred to the Air Corps to serve as a machinist for airplane parts at what was then the biggest engine overhaul base for radial engines in the world, based in the Midlands. He was transferred numerous times, including a stint as store-room manager. The breadth of the roles he held during his service, Blank explained, taught him much about general engineering, especially the importance of interchangeable parts.

When he finally finished his education in 1950, ten years after he started, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, which he described as “probably the broadest one of all the engineering disciplines. Since I didn’t have any particular fondness for chemical, mechanical, electrical, or civil, and I figured that’s the mother of all of them anyway.”

Seven years later Blank put all his experience to a grueling test: engineering, along with Eugene Kleiner, the mass production of silicon chips from the ground up.

Hilary Domush is a program associate in oral history at CHF. "First Person,” which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Friday of every month.

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