Jay Last, the physicist who helped create the silicon chips used in computers around the world and who was among the eight entrepreneurs whose company laid the technical, financial and cultural foundation of Silicon Valley, died on November 11 in Los Angeles. He was 92 years old.
His death in hospital was confirmed by his wife and the only survivor, Debbie.
Dr. Last was completing his doctoral dissertation. in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956, when approached William Shockleywho will share the Nobel Prize that same year for the invention of the transistor, a tiny electrical device that has become an important building block for computer chips in the world. Dr. Shockley invited him to join a new effort to commercialize the silicon transistor at a laboratory near Palo Alto, California, about 30 miles south of San Francisco.
Dr. Last was amazed at Dr. Shockley’s intelligence and reputation, but was unsure of a job offer. He eventually agreed to join Shockley’s semiconductor lab because it was in the Northern California Valley, where he spent the summer picking fruit after hitchhiking from his home in the Pennsylvania steel country.
But he and seven of his collaborators in the lab ran into Dr. Shockley, who later became infamous for his theory that black people are genetically inferior in intelligence compared to white people. They quickly left the lab to create their own transistor company. Later they began to be called “Traitorous Eight”, and their company, Fairchild Semiconductor, is now considered the epicenter of what has become known as Silicon Valley.
At Fairchild, Dr. Last led a team of scientists who developed the fundamental technology that is still used to make computer chips, powering the digital brain for billions and billions of computers, tablets, smartphones and smartwatches.
“For Silicon Valley as we know it today, there was nothing more important than Fairchild Semiconductor,” said David S. Brock, curator and director of the Center for Software History at the Center for Software History. Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. “Many of the dynamic processes that still persist were crystallized by the Fairchild founders, and Jay was right at the center of that.”
Jay Taylor Last was born on October 18, 1929 in Butler, Pennsylvania. His father, Frank, a German immigrant, and his Scottish-Irish mother, Sarah, met when they were two of three teachers at a high school in Ohio. After they got married, Frank Last felt that he could not support his family on a teacher’s salary, so they moved to Pennsylvania, where he went to work at Butler’s new steel mill, near Pittsburgh.
Jay Last grew up in Butler before making his first pilgrimage to the West Coast when he was 16. With the blessing of his parents – and with a letter from the local police chief saying he was not running away from home – he hitchhiked to San Jose. , California, which was then a small farming town. He planned to earn some money by harvesting fruit, but arrived before the harvest began.
Until that happened, he lived, as he often recalled in later years, on carrots worth a nickel a day. Whenever he faced a difficult situation, he spoke in interview for the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now the Institute for the History of Science) in 2004, he said to himself, “I went through this when I was 16 and it’s not such a big deal.”
At the suggestion of his father, he soon entered the University of Rochester in the state of New York to study optics – the physics of light. During the summer, at home in Pennsylvania, he worked in a research laboratory that served local flat glass manufacturers.
Keeping a promise he made to himself as a teenager, he earned his Ph.D. from MIT and then returned to Northern California to join Shockley’s lab. But he was annoyed by Dr. Shockley’s overly attentive and controlling leadership style.
“I was a laboratory assistant, and that’s how he worked with everyone,” he recalled in 2004. “There was no such thing as everyone getting together in a workshop and discussing what we were doing.” After about a year, he and his colleagues left to found Fairchild Semiconductor.
The use of materials such as silicon and germaniumDr. Shockley and two other scientists have shown how to build tiny transistors that will one day be used to store and transmit information in the form of an electrical signal. The question was how to put them together to form a large machine.
After using chemical compounds to etch transistors onto a sheet of silicon, Dr. Last and his colleagues could cut each one and connect them with separate wires like any other electrical device. But it was extremely difficult, inefficient, and expensive.
Fairchild co-founder Robert Noyce proposed an alternative method and it was implemented by a team led by Dr. Last. They developed a way to assemble transistors and wires into a single sheet of silicon.
This technique is still used today to create silicon chips, whose transistors are now exponentially smaller than those produced in the 1960s, according to Moore’s Lawis a famous adage formulated by another Fairchild founder, Gordon Moore.
After the death of Dr. Last, Dr. Moore became the last surviving member of the Treacherous Eight.
Fairchild Semiconductor executives will build several more chip companies, including Intel, which is co-founded by Dr. Moore, and Amelco, which is co-founded by Dr. Last. The founders and employees of the company will also create several of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms and will personally invest, as Dr. Last did, in many of the companies that have grown in the region over the decades.
Dr. Last retired from the chip business in 1974 and spent the rest of his life as an investor, art collector, writer, and hobby climber. His collection of African art was donated to the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and his treasure trove of California citrus box labels – an echo of his teenage summer in Northern California – is now in the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and San Francisco Botanical Gardens. Marino, California.
Since Dr. Last was completing his doctoral dissertation. in 1956 he was asked to head the glass laboratory in Butler, Pennsylvania, where he worked during the summer. This seemed like a promising opportunity.
“I went and told my parents,” he recalled. “My mom said, ‘Jay, you can do better in your life.”