Oral-History:Federico Faggin

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About Federico Faggin

Federico Faggin was born 1 December 1941 in Benito Mussolin’s Italy. Intellectualism ran in Faggin’s blood. His father was a teacher in the history of philosophy and general history. To his father’s dismay he was interested in electronics, not the humanities. At a young age, Faggin realized that his interests were the opposite of his beloved father. He remembers being interested in machines and anything mechanical at a young age. Even as a young boy, Faggin recalls the irony of the lure of technology: he felt he could understand why machines worked, but not humans.

At about the age of eleven, this fascinatingly impressionable young man saw a gentleman with a model airplane. He was captivated. “Wow,” he said with only a child’s awe and admiration, “it’s flying.” Inspired, he rushed home and built his own model plane. When it was completed, he took it back to the park with visions of seeing his masterpiece take to the sky like the birds that had captured his attention. It crashed. At that moment, the young man who had stimulated this whole obsession happened to be riding past on his bike and took pity on this little boy he perhaps had never noticed beforehand. He showed him how to build the plane, explained what would make it fly, and why his had not worked. Faggin associated flying with birds, and thought it was amazing that humans could create something that could soar like them. He studied electronics at his technical high school because he wanted to design and build airplanes, but the school had gotten rid of aeronautics program.

Faggin was hired as an assistant engineer in Olivetti, Italy in the mid 1950s. He recalls always being fascinated by physics. In his opinion, it really explained how and why things worked, which, from childhood, was what most interested him anyway. The company he worked for in Olivetti put Faggin in charge of building a computer. It ended up being seven feet high and as wide as a door frame. Even though he was now building machines, he felt something was lacking; he needed a formal education. Faggin enrolled at the University of Padua, in Italy, completing a program that usually took five-to-seven years in four, while working and giving private lessons to boot.

Even though he mastered physics, Faggin remained interested in application and the building of machines. He graduated in December 1966, receiving his degree on his 24th birthday. Aftewards, he would teach in Italy for an entire year. When interviewed later, Faggin believed that learning the English language and studying in both Italian and English gave him an edge over many of his European colleagues. He eventually came to America and took classes at Stanford in the late 1960s. He also got a job in a small start up company in Silicon Valley by the name of General Micro Electronics in the summer of 1966. Faggin was making his first computer in the early 1960s but did not realize it then. In February 1967 he joined SGS Fairchild. It was easier for him to work in the US than in Italy, because of the emphasis on production and the politics of the industry. In the U.S. if you produced you were in. In Italy, one could sustain a position if they played their politics right.

After a short while at Fairchild, Faggin developed the silicon gate technology, which was the first process technology that allowed practical manufacture of the self-aligned gates. The people who formed Intel took his technology and formed their mega-company, to which he was given zero-credit. They basically stole the technology from him and Fairchild. Intel undermined Fairchild, not only stealing technology, but key employees as well. In light of these developments, Faggin decided it was time to leave Fairchild. He called his former boss who was now working at Intel and asked if he had work for him. A few months later he received an affirmative reply and was soon working on a custom project that required a lot of logic. They had been sitting on the project for almost six months, and the customer was coming to check on the project’s progress in a few days. After working for a series of high-powered companies Faggin decided to start own company, Zylog, and took Intel head on, which was backed by IBM. Faggin agrees with Kleinrock about technology and that we are in the beginning of something that is going to get even bigger.