Microchip pioneer helped put the silicon into Silicon Valley


Dr. Last, the son of a steelworker from Butler, Pa., started out with a more modest career goal: to parlay his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology into an interesting job that would let him live in California.

After graduating from MIT in 1956, he joined the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory near San Francisco, run by William Shockley, who won a Pulitzer Prize the same year for research on transistors and semiconductors. A year later, Dr. Last was one of eight people who bolted from Shockley to found Fairchild Semiconductor. The others included Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, later co-founders of Intel Corp., and Eugene Kleiner, who went on to help form the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins.

When Fairchild Semiconductor was formed, transistors were typically produced one at a time out of germanium. “We felt that the future lay with silicon,” Dr. Last wrote later. His team developed mass-production processes for silicon chips, which initially went into military hardware and spacecraft and later made possible low-cost calculators, computers and myriad other electronic devices.

Dr. Last died on Nov. 11 in Los Angeles. He was 92.

Other companies were working on similar technology, but Fairchild “came up with the approach to the microchip that proved the most successful and is the basis for the silicon chips the digital world relies on today,” said David C. Brock, director of curatorial affairs at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Jay Taylor Last was born Oct. 18, 1929, and grew up in Butler, near Pittsburgh. His parents had been teachers, but his father switched to working at a steel mill to make more money.

Young Jay was a bookworm and taught himself to build small electric motors. “I always started out the school session very excited,” he said in a 2004 oral history for the Chemical Heritage Foundation, “but by the end of the third week I’d read everything we were going to cover that term, and it got pretty boring.”

During the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, he and a friend hitchhiked to California with a plan to earn money picking fruit. While looking for work there, he recalled “living on a nickel’s worth of carrots a day.” Finally, a cannery job yielded enough cash for him to buy a bus ticket home.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Rochester, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in optics in 1951. During the summers, he worked for a lab in Butler that did scientific work for the glassmaking industry. He had a chance to make a career at that lab after completing his doctoral program at MIT.

His mother, he recalled, advised against taking the lab job in Butler. “You can do a lot better than that with your life,” he recalled her telling him. “Get the hell out of this town.”

He also had a chance to work for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, but the pull of California was stronger.

Once he arrived, it soon became clear that working for Dr. Shockley would be trying. “He was just micromanaging everybody,” Dr. Last said later. He began talking to “kindred souls” about leaving Shockley and setting up what became Fairchild Semiconductor.

“Our timing was just perfect,” Dr. Last said. “We had the technology and it was something the world really needed.” He and his colleagues had to invent much of the equipment needed to mass produce transistors. Within eight months, Fairchild Semiconductor was delivering its first products to customers.

Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corp., eager to diversify, provided funding to launch Fairchild Semiconductor as an affiliate in 1957 and two years later, exercised an option to acquire full ownership of the business. As a founder, Dr. Last received about $250,000 of Fairchild Camera stock, the current equivalent of about $2.4 million and equal to 15 times his annual salary at the time.

“Making a lot of money out of this was not uppermost in our thoughts,” Dr. Last said. “People don’t believe that, but it was true.”

In 1961, he left Fairchild and joined Teledyne Inc., which wanted to make integrated circuits, mostly for military customers. He eventually became a vice president for technology at Teledyne.

Dr. Last retired from Teledyne in the late 1970s, before he was 50. He had invested in numerous startup companies, including Intel Corp. Mike Last, his nephew, recalled Dr. Last’s quip whenever an investment paid off handsomely: “Well, it looks like I’ll be able to put cheese on my hamburger tonight.”

Never in thrall to the latest fashions, he bought a Beverly Hills home but still had some of the same shag carpeting decades later, his nephew said. He was more inclined to spend money on art, mountain-climbing expeditions and trips to Africa. He was particularly interested in carved artworks created by the Lega people of eastern Congo. He donated his collection of those works to the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles.

He also collected advertising art from orange boxes in Southern California. That led to an interest in the history of color lithography. He amassed a vast collection of printed ephemera, including circus posters and game boards. Those items were donated to the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. He was a co-author of “California Orange Box Labels: An Illustrated History.”

Dr. Last was a founder of the Archaeological Conservancy, which preserves archaeological sites.

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Deborah R. Last.

If he and his colleagues hadn’t formed Fairchild Semiconductor, Dr. Last said, some other company would have figured out how to mass produce silicon chips. “In all likelihood,” he said in the oral history, “this would have happened outside of what is now called Silicon Valley,” perhaps in Southern California, Texas or on the East Coast. “As it happened,” he added, “we speeded up the process…and firmly established Silicon Valley as a technological center.”


This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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