The Geography of the Semiconductor: Lessons from Herman Fialkov
One of the most important chapters in the history of chemistry is the story of semiconductor electronics. Made largely through chemical means, semiconductor devices are the microchips on which our digital world runs, the lasers that make DVDs and optical telecommunications possible, and, increasingly, the sustainable lighting that illuminates our nights. Today, these developments in semiconductor electronics are instinctively associated with Silicon Valley, home to some of the most important industry players and to waves of technological innovations built atop semiconductor electronics.
However, the geography of semiconductor electronics—and of its chemical history—is much more expansive than Silicon Valley alone. Today, the geography of innovation and activity in semiconductors must include many locations across the United States, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. Looking back to the early history of semiconductor electronics, through the 1950s into the 1960s, this geography was dominated by two locations in the United States: southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic on the East Coast, and California on the West Coast. Within these continentally separated locales, quite the same sorts of activities emerged: venture-capital-backed startups, silicon microelectronics, and electronics-materials innovation. The story of Herman Fialkov, who died earlier this year, provides an exemplary lesson in this vein. In the story of his pioneering activities in semiconductor electronics and venture capital on the East Coast, one finds evidence that difference between the activities within these two geographies of semiconductor electronics was not one of kind, but rather of concentration and intensity.
The Chemical Heritage Foundation preserved Mr. Fialkov’s story in a recent oral history. In May, I used this oral history to write an extended essay on Herman Fialkov’s life, career, and its lessons for our understanding of the history of semiconductors. It can be read here.
David C. Brock is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at CHF.