The digerati have never heard of him. He was uncelebrated in Silicon Valley. But the silicon chips that transformed the Valley from a land of fruit trees to the irreproducible center of the computer industry were to some degree his brainchild.
But this is an irony that Jean Hoerni, a retiring and often sarcastic engineer and entrepreneur, who died in February at the age of 72, might well have relished.
Using what he modestly called “college level” physics, Dr. Hoerni nvented the planar process, which enabled Fairchild Semiconductor to produce the first integrated circuit. Mr. Hoerni’s inspiration came to him during his shower one morning in 1958, at a time when he and the seven other Fairchild founders were completely stalled in their research. To create an integrated circuit, one must embed large numbers of heat-producing electronic transistors on a single, miniature component. Mr. Hoerni’s planar process, a means of fusing an insulating layer of silicon dioxide onto the chip before the application of the conducting metal circuitry, turned out to be the breakthrough. With Mr. Hoerni’s invention, Fairchild started a technological revolution and created an industry valued today at $140 billion.
After completing doctorates in physics from Cambridge University and the University of Geneva, the Swiss-born scientist emigrated to the United States in 1952 and quietly sought a career in research. As a researcher, he kept his genius under wraps, relatives recalled at a service at Stanford Memorial Church. Not the slightest bit pretentious about his intellect, Mr. Hoerni even warned his parents, “If you want to please me, never ask about my studies.”
But in the early ’50s, while he was working at the California Institute of Technology, Mr. Hoerni’s shy brilliance attracted the attention of electronics pioneer William Shockley. Just months before Mr. Shockley received the Nobel prize for codevelopment of the transistor, he recruited Mr. Hoerni and others to his new venture, Shockley Transistor Laboratories, in Palo Alto.
Hardly a year after the founding of Shockley Labs, its founder’s infamous temper and authoritarian management style caused eight of his recruits to leave. Backed by Fairchild Camera and Instrument in Long Island, New York, these eight–Mr. Hoerni, Julius Blank, Victor Grinich, Eugene Kleiner, Jay Last, Sheldon Roberts, and Intel founders Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce–set up their own research-and-development shop. Their goal was to beat Mr. Shockley to the creation of the first commercial integrated circuit. And Mr. Hoerni’s planar process provided the engineering edge that put them in the lead.
But plagued by an itinerant’s need to seek new opportunities, Mr. Hoerni would leave Fairchild after only a few years, before the company achieved its success with semiconductors. He would go on to found many more companies, the most notable being Intersil, now a part of General Electric, which used his technology to pioneer digital watches.
Still, Mr. Hoerni’s life did not revolve solely around the research lab. A fanatically dedicated mountain climber, he scaled most of the world’s highest peaks, made a partial ascent of Mount Everest, and spent countless weekends in the Sierras.
“Mountain climbing is a common recreation for physicists,” says Mr. Last, a business partner and climbing companion of Mr. Hoerni. “So much is fuzzy for the physicist, but mountains provide concrete goals and definite success.”
Mr. Hoerni was extremely strong, hiking at high altitudes with little food and never sleeping in a tent, and he was resourceful as well. To extend the life of an old sleeping bag, he stuffed it with newspapers. On waking up one morning above 12,000 feet, he told Mr. Last he planned to write a letter of appreciation to the editor of The Wall Street Journal saying that it was by far the warmest newspaper.
On a trek in his later years, Mr. Hoerni became devoted to the Karakoram Mountains in northern Pakistan. He was moved by the bleak contrast between the mountain beauty and the harsh life of the Balti mountain people, who lived without medical care or education. Together with Greg Mortenson of Bozeman, Montana, Mr. Hoerni donated $12,000 to build the region’s first school. So that the Balti people would continue to be served after his death, Mr. Hoerni created a foundation called the Central Asia Institute with a $1 million endowment. “Hoerni had the foresight to lead us to the 21st century with cutting-edge technology,” says Mr. Mortenson, “but he also had the rare vision to look behind and reach out to people living as they have for centuries.”
In spite of his lofty intelligence, Mr. Hoerni was as stimulated by a Sherpa as by a Nobel scientist, and if his name is not often recognized in the rolling hills of the San Francisco Bay Area, it is sung with high praise in remote Pakistan.
Copyright (c) 1997 Red Herring