Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.
The hyperbole surrounding Texas Instruments' recent donation to the Computer History Museum is almost as staggering as the donation itself. The 1,100 patent notebooks dating from the founding of the Fairchild Semiconductor Company have been compared to the Magna Carta and the Constitution of the United States. In an e-mail, Paula Jabloner, director of collections at the museum, called them the "founding documents" of Silicon Valley.
Aggrandizing aside, the 115 boxes do speak to the rise of Silicon Valley as the epicenter of technological innovation. Fairchild was founded in 1957 by Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, Jean Hoerni, Julius Blank, Eugene Kleiner, Victor Grinich, Jay Last, and Sheldon Roberts. The founders made history with planar technology, which forever improved the reliability of semiconductors and altered the manufacturing of microelectronics. Texas Instruments acquired the notebooks in 2001 when it purchased National Semiconductor.
The acquisition offers a glimpse into the day-to-day account of Fairchild scientists and engineers, including illustrations by Hoerni. Many engineers kept meticulous notes alongside hand-drawn diagrams. There are photographs and silicon wafers taped on pages, and memos from Gordon Moore. "One notebook has scrawled across the last page, 'Terminate job today,' while in another a resignation letter is stuffed in the back," Jabloner recalled.
The notebooks fit well into the museum's collections, which already house the Fairchild Semiconductor employee papers, the photographs commissioned by Fairchild, and early semiconductors currently on display. The process of inventing the semiconductors has been located in the notebooks, but it will not be joining the exhibition anytime soon.
Almost all of the notebooks need substantial conservation work before they can be displayed or available to researchers. Pages are stuck together and photographs are almost completely unhinged. Conservationist Kathleen Orlenko has been tasked with the initial assessment, and reported back to the museum that the notebooks represent a true low point in textual goods, made from the cheapest materials available. Many of the items which make the notebooks most interesting to us prove to be the most troublesome for a conservationist: An abundance of pressure-sensitive tape and rubber cement meant to secure items have since stained pages, and if allowed to go untreated may eventually disfigure the entire notebook.
Of course, Orlenko will just be providing an assessment. Jabloner noted that the museum will need substantial community support in order to complete the necessary conservation work, and then catalog and interpret the notebooks. In the meantime, visitors can whet their appetite on the exhibition "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing."