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Jay Last, one of the founding rebels of Silicon Valley, dies at 92


Jay Last, a physicist who helped create the silicon chips that power the world’s computers and who was one of eight entrepreneurs whose company laid the technical, financial and cultural foundations of Silicon Valley, died Nov. 11 in Los Angeles. He was 92 years old.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his wife and only immediate survivor, Debbie.

Dr Last was completing a doctorate. in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956 when he was approached by William Shockley, who would share a Nobel Prize that same year for the invention of the transistor, the small electrical device that became the essential building block for computer chips of the world. Dr Shockley invited him to join a new effort to commercialize a silicon transistor at a lab near Palo Alto, Calif., About 30 miles south of San Francisco.

Dr Last was impressed with Dr Shockley’s intelligence and reputation, but was unsure of the job offer. In the end, he agreed to join the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory because he was in the valley of northern California where he had spent a summer harvesting fruit after hitchhiking from his home. in the Pennsylvania steel region.

But he and seven of his lab collaborators clashed with Dr Shockley, who later became infamous for his theory that blacks were genetically inferior in intelligence to whites. They quickly left the lab to start their own transistor business. They were later called “the eight traitors” and their company, Fairchild Semiconductor, is now considered the zero point of what has become Silicon Valley.

At Fairchild, Dr Last led a team of scientists who developed a fundamental technique that is still used to make computer chips, supplying the digital brains to billions and billions of computers, tablets, smartphones and watches. connected.

“There was nothing more important than Fairchild Semiconductor to the Silicon Valley experience as we know it today,” said David C. Brock, curator and director of the Software History Center at the Computer History Museum of Mountain View, California. “A lot of the momentum that still lingers was crystallized by the founders of Fairchild, and Jay was right in the middle of it all.

Jay Taylor Last was born October 18, 1929 in Butler, Pennsylvania. Her father, Frank, a German immigrant, and Scottish-Irish mother, Sarah, had met when they were two of three teachers at a high school in Ohio. After their marriage, Frank Last felt he could not support a family on a teacher’s salary, so they moved to Pennsylvania, where he went to work in the new Butler Steel Mill, not far from Pittsburgh.

Jay Last grew up in Butler before making his first West Coast pilgrimage at the age of 16. With his parents’ blessing – and carrying a letter from the local police chief saying he wasn’t running away from home – he hitchhiked all the way to San Jose. , California, which was then a small farming town. He had planned to make some money by picking fruit, but he arrived before the harvest began.

Until that was the case, he lived, as he often remembered later, on the equivalent of a penny of carrots a day. Whenever he was faced with a difficult situation, he said in an interview with the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now the Science History Institute) in 2004, he said to himself, “I got over that when I I was 16, and that’s not that big of a deal. “

At his father’s suggestion, he quickly enrolled at the University of Rochester in New York State to study optics – the physics of light. During the summers back home in Pennsylvania, he worked in a research lab that served local flat glass makers.

Keeping a promise he made as a teenager, he earned his doctorate from MIT, before returning to Northern California and joining the Shockley lab. But he resented the overly attentive and controlling management style of Dr Shockley.

“I was a lab assistant, and that’s how he worked with everyone,” he recalls in 2004. “There was no such thing as everyone getting together in a seminar and discussing of what we were doing. After about a year, he and his colleagues left to form Fairchild Semiconductor.

Using materials like silicon and germanium, Dr Shockley and two other scientists demonstrated how to build the tiny transistors that would one day be used to store and move information in the form of an electrical signal. The question was how to connect them together to form a bigger machine.

After using chemical compounds to etch transistors into a silicon foil, Dr Last and his colleagues could have cut each of the foil and connected them with individual wires, much like any other electrical device. But it was extremely difficult, inefficient and expensive.

One of the founders of Fairchild, Robert Noyce, suggested an alternative method, and it was carried out by a team overseen by Dr Last. They developed a way to build both transistors and wires from the same sheet of silicon.

This method is still used to build silicon chips, whose transistors are now exponentially smaller than those made in the 1960s, in accordance with Moore’s Law, the famous maxim enacted by another Fairchild founder, Gordon Moore. .

With the death of Dr Last, Dr Moore is the last surviving member of the “Eight Traitors”.

Executives at Fairchild Semiconductor would go on to create several other chip companies, including Intel, co-founded by Dr. Moore, and Amelco, co-founded by Dr. Last. The founders and employees of the company would also form some of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms and would personally invest, as Dr. Last did, in many of the companies that have sprung up in the region over the years. decades.

Dr Last retired from the flea industry in 1974 and spent the rest of his life as an investor, art collector, writer, and amateur mountaineer. His collection of African art was donated to the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his treasure trove of Californian citrus box labels – an echo of his teenage summer in Northern California – is now at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California

While Dr Last was finishing his doctorate. in 1956, he was asked to take over the head of the glass lab in Butler, Pa., where he had worked during the summers. It seemed like a promising opportunity.

“I went to talk to my parents about it,” he recalls. “My mom said to me, ‘Jay, you can do a lot better than that with your life.'”

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