John H. Hall

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John H. Hall was an early innovator in the semiconductor industry, pioneering the development of low-voltage CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) integrated circuit technology.

After serving in the United States Navy and graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1961, Hall joined Rockwell, where he worked on the classified Minuteman Missile project. He won recognition for solving a circuit problem that was causing the missile to explode in-flight. He was then recruited to work at Honeywell, where he designed custom circuits from the YF-11 Blackbird Reconnaissance Plane. There, he developed the first onboard computer composed entirely of integrated circuits.

In 1962, Jean Hoerni, the inventor of the planar process used to develop modern microchips, brought Hall to Union Carbide to design integrated circuits. From 1962 to 1967, Hall was Union Carbide’s director of integrated circuit development. Hall oversaw numerous innovations, including the first application of thin film technology to on-chip resistors, the first dual transistor on a single chip, and the invention of the first dielectric isolation technology.

Hall joined Hoerni at Intersil in 1967, where he developed the first practical complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) process by coating silicon oxide gates with phosphorous glass. By reducing the chip’s power consumption from the industry-standard 8 to 10 volts to just 1.2 volts, Hall’s CMOS chip could run on a single battery, making it suitable for consumer electronics. Intersil also designed the first N Channel memory chip, which would become an industry standard.

Initially, the expected buyers of CMOS chips—Swiss watchmakers and German camera and calculator designers—declined to take a chance on this untested technology. Instead, Japanese electronics companies were the first to take advantage of CMOS. Seiko brought Hall to Japan and built a factory around this technology, giving the company an early lead in producing quartz digital wristwatches. In 1971, Seiko financed Hall’s startup, Micro Power Systems, Inc., which built analog chips to control radio signals, sounds, and heat.

At Micro Power, Hall built custom chips for a number of innovative technologies. In 1975, he created a low-voltage chip for medical-device maker Medtronic that allowed a heart pacemaker to run for ten years without the need for a battery change. This chip also permitted doctors to regulate the pacemaker’s settings by remote control. He also worked with a Japanese company to make a chip that could synthesize the human voice and designed a chip for Canon that powered the first electronic camera shutter.

Micro Power was poised for a public stock offering in the mid-1980s when Hall and Seiko became embroiled in a dispute that led to Hall’s firing in 1986. Hall responded by filing a 110 million dollar lawsuit alleging patent violations and wrongful termination. The suit was eventually settled, with Hall awarded a small sum of money and the rights to patents developed by Micro Power.

Hall’s next venture, Linear Integrated Systems, broke from the emerging industry chip standard in the late-1980s. Hall changed the material on semiconductor chip gates from silicon to refractory metals like tungsten and molybdenum and reduced the space between groups of circuits by laying the wires on top of the cells. This design produced a five-fold increase in speed, but was not suited to the structure of memory chips, which were becoming the biggest microchip market. Hall’s company remains a full service manufacturer of specialty linear semiconductors.