|Fueling the Electronics Explosion
by Clare Coppa
Judson C. French can accurately say he contributed to the growth
In the 1960s, he and other scientists at the National Bureau of
Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology)
developed some of the first measurement methods for semiconductors
that became fundamental to computers, cell phones, and most electronics.
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the U.S. consumer electronics
industry went into decline in the 1960s. Manufacturers couldnt
compete with the quality of foreign producers, especially in Japan.
NBS records show that the precision metrology introduced in the
60s by French and his associates gave U.S. manufacturers a footing
that advanced U.S. competition. By the 80s, the U.S. led semiconductor
development and assembly.
That was part of the fun, French recalled from his office at
NIST in Gaithersburg, Md., a division of the U.S. Department of
Commerce. We had the reward of seeing the results of our work
have a real impact.
A granddaddy in the field, French came to NBS in 1948 after graduating
from Harvard. That was just after the invention of the transistor
(an arrangement of semiconductor materials) by John Bardeen, Walter
Brattain, and William Shockley in 1947.
French knew Shockley. They had been in contact about separate
research on the problem of second breakdown, a failure mechanism
in power transistors.
There was a fun story about that, French said about a visit
Shockley made to the NBS lab. It turned out that our experimental
work showed that his theory was not going to work.
We were novices and we were embarrassed to death to tell this
Nobel Laureate that we were afraid he was on the wrong track.
Harry [Schafft] stood up and just started describing the experiments
that we were doing, French said. And this is an example of what
a wonderful person Bill Shockley was. About three-quarters of
the way through Harrys presentation of our work, Shockley said,
this means that Im on the wrong track. Im going to have to
change my whole theory. So he sat there right in front of us,
and based on these things, started working on his new approach.
French and researchers at NBS eventually provided the basis for
a new type of specification for maximum operating conditions free
of second breakdown. Other notable developments included their
work on resistivity. It saved the semiconductor industry well
over $30 million in a 10-year period, according to an analysis
made by NBS in cooperation with semiconductor companies. Resistivity
measurement is still used in the manufacture of semiconductor
devices for integrated circuits, French said.
In 1960, he contacted ASTM members to identify problem areas.
He and members of the NBS semiconductor electronics program immediately
began developing ASTM standards with Committee F01 on Electronicsand still do. I have a very warm spot in my heart
for ASTM, he said, because its been an invaluable forum for
From 1991 to his retirement in 1999, French directed the NIST
Electronics and Electrical Engineering Laboratory. EEEL provides
national primary standards for electricity, and metrology research
for the electrical, electronic, quantum electronic, optoelectronic,
and electromagnetic sectors.
As a man who played a role in the electronics explosion of the
20th century, does French use the fastest, state-of-the-art computer?
Thats another funny story, he said, laughing. For a long time,
neither French nor the head of the computer systems lab at NIST
had a computer in their office. Both of us concluded that it
was more efficient to have our secretaries use the computer for
correspondence and all of that sort of thing, he said.
French continues research as director emeritus of the EEEL and
is enjoying retirement with his wife Judy, a lecturer and former
photo librarian for National Geographic.
Copyright 2002, ASTM