This is the fourth in the series of “20 Questions with Wally Rhines”
I joined Texas Instruments (TI) in 1972. Most Stanford PhD’s in my field at that time remained in the Bay Area to work for Fairchild, National Semiconductor, HP or other local companies. But TI was the largest semiconductor company and there were plenty of TI PhD’s recruiting at Stanford.
About a month after I arrived at TI, Morris Chang was promoted to Group Vice President of the Semiconductor Group. Morris was born in Mainland China, near Shanghai, and had the unique distinction of being accepted to Harvard University in the U.S. Sensing that a technical degree was the best path forward, Morris transferred from Harvard to MIT after the first year and ultimately received a Mechanical Engineering degree and took a job at Sylvania, an early participant in the emerging semiconductor industry.
With several years of experience. Morris was attracted to TI in 1958 and was given responsibility for developing and manufacturing transistors for IBM’s first major mainframe computer with transistor logic, the IBM 7090. There were four transistors that were produced by both IBM and TI, three of which were yielding at acceptable levels. But one of them remained at low single digit yields. Morris worked late nights analyzing data and finally figured out the problem. Yields soared and Morris became a hero, ultimately becoming the manager of all of TI’s germanium transistor business.
Morris’ goal, however, was to become VP of R&D. His superiors told him that such a goal would be impossible unless he had a PhD since most of the researchers had that credential. So Morris took advantage of a TI funded opportunity to go to Stanford in 1961 and studied under John Moll, Bill Spicer and Gerald Pearson, receiving his PhD in record time in early 1964. When he returned to TI, business had grown dramatically so, instead of joining the research labs, they needed Morris to run the integrated circuit business. Despite Jack Kilby’s invention of the integrated circuit in 1958, TI had lost ground due to Bob Noyce’s development of the planar process in 1960 which eclipsed TI’s lead. With some good decisions and hard work, TI emerged as the leader in bipolar TTL integrated circuits (after losing to Fairchild in the first bipolar generation RTL and Motorola in the second generation with DTL). This success, combined with TI’s two year lead in developing the silicon transistor took TI to its goal of $1 billion of revenue. And Morris headed the world’s largest semiconductor business.
While TI dominated the bipolar semiconductor era of integrated circuits, and had the largest market share in the semiconductor industry in the 1960’s, the MOS era that evolved in the late 1960’s with Intel and Mostek was a different story. While TI did the best job of the “Big Three” (TI, Fairchild and Motorola) of making the transition from bipolar to MOS technology initially, Motorola recruited a substantial number of TI’s senior semiconductor managers in the mid 1970’s including Jim Fiebiger whose team from TI changed the competitive environment. MOS memory and later microprocessors became strengths for both of TI’s key competitors, Intel and Motorola. That made the late 1970’s and 1980’s a difficult period for TI.
Intel’s 1103 1K DRAM became a widely adopted standard. TI had three programs to match it before a production worthy part was developed but it was too late. Hope appeared when the 4K NMOS DRAM emerged since Intel had a three transistor cell and TI leapfrogged to a single transistor cell but the victory was short lived. Mostek, who had introduced an undistinguished 4096 MNOS structure for their 4K but, upon hiring Paul Schroeder from Bell Labs (who said on his resume that he was the greatest DRAM designer in the world), usurped the lead with the Mostek 4027. TI struggled with its TMS 4030 design and remained allied with the camp of companies doing 18 and 22 pin parts because of the advantage that they required no multiplexing of address and data and would therefore be faster, unlike the 16 pin Mostek part. Mostek’s 4027 disproved that thesis. The only solution was to copy the Mostek 4027, which was perfectly legal at the time, and I was chosen to head that team.
On the day I arrived in Houston to begin the development, Dick Gossen, head of memory design, advised me to begin filling out my resume. Dick explained to me that the corporate senior management was underestimating the difficulty created by the analog nature of a DRAM. TI, and everyone else, had freely second sourced logic parts by copying. In fact, that was the normal procedure that was encouraged in the industry to make a design viable, i.e. solicit another company to copy your part and help to make it a standard. DRAM’s, however, have analog sense amplifiers that have variable behavior depending upon the process used for manufacturing.
I began a detailed analysis of the device structure of the Mostek 4027 and discovered that, when the Mostek founders left TI to start Mostek, they took the TI process with them. So the normal difficulties of matching a design and a process were not relevant; the process was the same.
We followed the 4K with a similar copy of the 16K DRAM that kept TI as a contender in the MOS memory business but the challenges of the evolving microprocessor business put TI further behind (spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/heroic-failures/the-inside-story-of-texas-instruments-biggest-blunder-the-tms9900-microprocessor).
Rarely do companies succeed in being the leader in two major transitions of an industry. TI had done that with the silicon transistor and the bipolar integrated circuit. But the next two generations were MOS memory and MOS microprocessors, leaving TI behind. Today, TI is the only company to continue as one of the ten largest semiconductor companies from the 1950’s to the present because the tide was reversed in the next generation of embedded DSP’s.