As I See It: The Accidental Philanthropist
March 8, 2010 Victor Rozek
Words can be unreliable. Their meaning changes with context and time. Take cool, for example. Until the late 1950s it referred to ambient temperature when the Beat generation co-opted it as an expression of approval. These days when you see words like “traitorous” and “Pakistan” they conjure up betrayal and terror. But when applied to the life of a person responsible for one of the most important innovations in the history of the computer industry, those meanings are dead wrong. And you have to go back more than 50 years to understand them.
The man in question was born in Switzerland in 1924. He was reportedly restless and shy, and growing up in a nation of peaks and vistas, he found refuge in high mountain places. A tough, resourceful hiker, he traveled great distances with little food and less comfort, preferring to sleep without a tent. His shyness, however, masked a piercing intellect excited by the natural world, and impatient to understand its secrets. A quiet and unassuming student, he earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Geneva. His chosen field of study was physics. In 1952 he earned a second Ph.D., also in physics, from the University of Cambridge in England. His name was Jean Hoerni, and that same year he immigrated to the United States to begin a career in research.
That career was launched at the California Institute of Technology, where he came to the attention of the volatile and brilliant William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor (for which he would receive the Nobel Prize) and godfather of what eventually became known as Silicon Valley. At the time, Shockley was a bright, rising star in the scientific firmament. At the tender age of 41 he had been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and two years later won the prestigious Comstock Prize. Seemingly overnight, his 558-page treatise titled Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors became the bible for a generation of scientists toiling to improve transistor and semiconductor technology.
Shockley’s people skills, however, were inversely proportional to his intellect. He was teaching at the CalTech after taking a leave of absence from Bell Labs having been passed up for promotion because he was unable to play nice with the other geniuses. In the early 1950s, he was trolling universities looking for research talent because none of his previous colleagues wanted to join him in a new venture, Shockley Transistor Laboratories, in Palo Alto.
In the unassuming Hoerni, Shockley probably thought he’d found someone who was not only brilliant, but also easy to dominate and control. He was wrong. It took just a year for Shockley’s recruits to tire of his autocratic and ill-tempered management style. Hoerni and seven others defected (an extraordinary assembly of entrepreneurial talent, as it turns out), among them Intel‘s future founders, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. For their brazenness they were dubbed the “Traitorous Eight.”
It’s unclear who first coined the term, and Shockley’s wife swears he never used it. But given his personality, which reportedly leaned toward paranoia, it’s highly likely that he saw the en masse desertion as an act of betrayal.
With the financial backing of Fairchild Camera and Instrument, the T-8 created their own R&D lab, a little startup called Fairchild Semiconductor. Its initial goal was beating Shockley to market with the first commercially produced integrated circuit. And Hoerni was responsible for the key breakthrough that he apparently thought of while watching water sluice off his hands in the shower.
Creating an integrated circuit requires embedding large numbers of heat-producing transistors on a single, miniature component. Connecting them was problematic. Hoerni envisioned a process by which a silicon wafer was repeatedly coated with silicon oxide and then precisely engraved so that the components of a transistor could be deposited in interconnected layers. A metal layer is then applied as an overlay to the oxide, thus connecting the transistors without manually wiring them together. It became known as the Planar process and to this day it remains the essential technique for constructing chips.
Fairchild introduced the unimaginatively named 2N1613 Planar transistor commercially in 1960. In doing so, it launched an industry that is predicted to reach $241 billion in revenues this year. Hoerni, however, did not stay long to enjoy the fruits of his intellect. His restlessness again asserted itself, and by 1961 he had moved on. That year he launched Teledyne’s Amelco division. Two years later, he moved again to manage a research division at Union Carbide. In 1967 he founded Intersil, and then a firm called Telmos. In fact, seven of the T-8 went on to found various spinoff companies. Shockley, it turns out, had chosen well.
The “traitorous” Hoerni’s connection to Pakistan evolved from his early love of mountaineering. While he worked with Shockley in California, Hoerni spent almost all available free time in the Sierras. Eventually, he succeeded in climbing many of the world’s great peaks, turned back only by the loftiest summit of all, Everest.
In 1974, while on a trek, Hoerni discovered, and grew to love, the bleak and remote Karakoram Mountains in northern Pakistan. But he couldn’t fail to notice the plight of the Balti people who lived in the region. They endured the harshest poverty; infertile soils, a short growing season, and no access to education or medical care. Yet they welcomed the occasional traveler, sharing what little they had. Hoerni was sympathetic, but it would be another 20 years before he found the means to do anything about it.
His “means” turned out to be Greg Mortenson, whose heroic exploits are beautifully chronicled in the bestseller Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson, too, found the region haunting, and in gratitude for the villagers of Korphe who nursed him back to health after an abortive climb of K2, he determined to build them a school. Like many young climbers who live solely to climb, however, Mortenson returned home broke. But as a starting point, he had consulted local builders and was confident that the job could be done for $12,000.
To raise it, he sent out 580 letters to wealthy notables requesting donations. He received a single check for $100 and 62,345 pennies that his mother’s elementary school had raised. The project seemed doomed until fate intervened in the form of the inimitable Jean Hoerni.
Hoerni had read about Mortenson’s efforts and called him to ask how much money he needed to build the school. When Mortenson told him, Hoerni replied “Is that all?” A week later he had a check for $12,000 and so began an extraordinary philanthropic partnership. Mortenson continues building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, sometimes at great personal risk. His work is supported by the Central Asia Institute, created and endowed with a million-dollar grant by Hoerni.
In 1972, Hoerni was presented the prestigious W. Wallace McDowell Award for the Planar process that “made possible the economical mass production of reliable integrated circuits and semiconductor memories.” In accepting the award, he joined such notables as Seymour Cray and Gene Amdahl. Eight years later, he was honored with the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Pioneer Award. He passed in 1997.
The pace of life in America moves quickly, and the richness of opportunity allows innovation to grow exponentially. One man’s accomplishments in the 1960s are soon overshadowed by the achievements of others. All too quickly the innovators, like mountains in a vast range receding in an airplane window, begin to blend together until they become indistinguishable.
But not to the people who live in those mountains. Whether Hoerni is held in greater esteem in his adopted country or in Pakistan is open to debate. But there is a good chance that the memory of his compassion will outlast the accomplishments of his intellect. It is altogether fitting, then, that Mortenson poured Hoerni’s ashes into the Braldu River, while standing on a bridge the scientist paid to build, in the village of Korphe, where their first school was in session.