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Julius Blank, 86; among first computer chip makers

Mr. Blank (second from right) laughed with fellow Fairchild founders Jay Last (left), C. Sheldon Roberts, and Eugene Kleiner (right) while previewing an integrated circuit postage stamp. Mr. Blank (second from right) laughed with fellow Fairchild founders Jay Last (left), C. Sheldon Roberts, and Eugene Kleiner (right) while previewing an integrated circuit postage stamp. (Joan Seidel/Associated Press/File 1999)
By Paul Vitello
New York Times / September 24, 2011

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NEW YORK - Julius Blank, a mechanical engineer who helped start a computer chip company in the 1950s that became a prototype for high-tech startups and a training ground for a generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, died last Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by Cynthia Small Blank, his daughter-in-law.

Mr. Blank was one of eight computer scientists who in 1957 founded the Fairchild Semiconductor Corp. in Palo Alto. He was one of only two in the group who had experience in manufacturing.

So after the scientists’ initial research to find an inexpensive way to make silicon computer chips - a breakthrough that persuaded an investor to stake them $1.5 million - the task of building the machinery to mass-produce them fell to Mr. Blank and another engineer in the group, Eugene Kleiner.

The two scrounged parts, improvised equipment, and tooled a set of machines that essentially became the first assembly line for the basic building blocks of the electronic world: electronic circuits made from silicon chips.

“In those days, you couldn’t go out and buy these things off the shelf,’’ said David C. Brock, who with Christophe Lecuyer wrote “Makers of the Microchip,’’ a 2010 history of Fairchild Semiconductor. “They had to build everything, starting with the equipment for growing silicon crystals.’’

Mr. Blank and his partners - among them Robert N. Noyce and Gordon E. Moore, future founders of the Intel Corp. - began their venture as scientist-entrepreneurs following a mutiny of sorts against their common previous employer, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist William B. Shockley.

Shockley, who became a lightning rod for racial tensions years later when he advocated a form of race-based genetic engineering, had recruited the eight scientists from across the country in 1956 to work in his own semiconductor lab in Mountain View, Calif. The group left en masse the next year because of what its members described as Shockley’s authoritarian management style and their differences with him on his scientific approach. Shockley called it a betrayal.

Fairchild’s founders came to be branded in the lore of Silicon Valley as the “Traitorous Eight.’’ How that happened remains something of a mystery. But the epithet, wherever it came from, was attached to their names in almost every news account of the company’s success for years afterward. In an interview with The San Jose Mercury News this year, Mr. Blank said they had never betrayed Shockley. But, he added, “Once it got into print, it’s hard to erase.’’

Julius Blank was born in Manhattan, the youngest of three children of Charles and Gussie Blank, Jewish immigrants from Russia and Austria, respectively. They lived on the Lower East Side. Mr. Blank graduated from Erasmus Hall High School and served in the US Army in World War II. He graduated from City College with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1950.

In 1952, he joined the engineering group at AT&T’s Western Electric plant in Kearney, N.J., where he helped develop machinery for making the first circuitry used by callers to dial long distance without an operator. He met Kleiner at the plant in Kearney. The two left together in 1956 for Shockley’s lab.

Mr. Blank leaves two sons, Jeffrey and David, and two grandsons. His wife, Ethel, died in 2008.

When he left Fairchild in 1969 - he was the last of the eight founding partners to depart - Mr. Blank became an investor and consultant to startup companies and helped found the technology firm Xicor, which was sold in 2004 for $529 million to Intersil. His former partners, in addition to founding Intel, had started Advanced Micro Devices and National Semiconductor. Kleiner had founded a venture capital firm that invested early in hundreds of technology companies, including Amazon.com, Google, and AOL.