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Fueling the Electronics Explosion

by Clare Coppa

Judson C. French can accurately say he contributed to the growth of electronics.

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 couldn’t 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 Harry’s presentation of our work, Shockley said, ‘this means that I’m on the wrong track. I’m 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 Electronics—and still do. “I have a very warm spot in my heart for ASTM,” he said, “because it’s been an invaluable forum for us.”

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? “That’s 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