Having serious fun at National Semiconductor - Embedded.com

Having serious fun at National Semiconductor

National Semiconductor Corp. has just been acquired by competitor Texas Instruments for $6.5 billion. National was one of the three or four founding Silicon Valley semiconductor manufacturing corporations at the beginning of the modern electronics industry in the 1960s and 70s.

That one caught me by surprise! Shouldn’t have, I guess. The signs—and rumors—were there for all to see (as pointed out in aprescient story by Mark LaPedus in January of 2010), for anyone willing to see it.

A lot of my formative years in the industry were spent writing about, or for, National Semiconductor and its competitors, first as a Silicon Valley Bureau Chief and Editor for the now defunct Electronics Magazine and then as an editorial and writing consultant to high tech firms. National was one of my clients for a number of years during the era of its president Charles E. (Charlie) Sporck, who became president and CEO in 1967. He transformed a second or third tier discrete electronics company, founded in the late 1950s in Connecticut, and transformed it into a California-based IC power house. Now known primarily for its analog and power IC expertise, between 1975 and 1985 National was into virtually every segment of the electronics business.

When I worked with the company as a contractor I was only one of several writer/editors filling similar roles, and the projects I was involved in were only a small portion of market and product segments in which the company was involved.  But even that small microcosm of my direct experience still impresses me with its ambition and scope.

Initially  I was involved in such product efforts as the COPS family of 8 bit MCUs (including a dual core, or dual ALU version); many of National’s analog products; a number of second source microprocessor variants of both the Zilog Z80 and Intel 8080, including one implementation that could be programmed in BASIC. There was also the whole range of original microprocessor designs: NS8000, NS16000, NS32000, and several bit-slice digital signal processor implementations. There were also forays into various segments of the memory business: DRAMS, SRAMS, EEPROMs and even magnetic bubble memory.

Later on there were projects involving system-level hardware and software design as National moved into the OEM segment of the market as a builder of calculators and digital watches up against Intel, HP and various Japanese firms; minicomputers against the likes of Digital Equipment Corp.; bit-slice based mainframes in competition with Amdahl Corp. and IBM; and even point-of-sale digital terminals, against National Cash Register. (I still have a LCD-based scientific calculator/watch from National and an LED-based Novus digital watch from Intel.)

If there was a segment of the market in which there was a dollar to be made National Semiconductor was there, aggressively. But within this shell of grimly serious focus on business there was a sense of fun despite the fact that the competition in the marketplace was intense and cut-throat.

I remember a period when the company papered the industry with a series of tongue-in-cheek brochures, magazine ads and posters, some of which I was involved in developing. The posters, which are probably collector’s items now, were festooned with cartoon caricatures of company executives, design team leaders, and engineers portrayed in colorful scenes based on some of the great historical battlefield conflicts.

In one, Sporck, his executives and engineering managers are shown rushing up San Juan Hill in Cuba to attack the ‘enemy’,  portrayed as a National Semi competitor and its executives (from Texas Instruments, I seem to remember). In another, Charlie and his team are represented at the Custer’s Battle of the Little Big Horn up against either Intel or Motorola, or both. Whether he and his executives were in the middle, fighting the Indians, or whether they were the Indians, battling their way in through the defenses, I don’t remember.

The spirit of “Hey, let's have some fun” initiated by National infected their competitors. I was involved in some of these projects and for a while I became the go-to guy for fun collateral documentation (brochures, promotional material, etc.) by companies who wanted to get into the spirit of things.

One project for which I contracted was with Intel Corp. founder Bob Noyce, Executive VP Andy Grove, and several of their executives. They wanted a brochure for the company's sales conference. The brochure I wrote had a Star Trek theme, with Noyce, Grove and Intel engineers represented as crew members of the United Federation of Planets Starship Enterprise. Intel's competitors – TI, National, Toshiba, Motorola, NEC and others – were all represented as various alien star empires battling for domination of this particular segment of the Milky Way galaxy. I think National Semiconductor was portrayed as either the Romulan or Klingon Empires.

I remember those years as a time of excitement, intensity, and constant challenge, most of it in earnest. But most of all, it is the high-spirited fun that I remember – and miss, because at the corporate level, it seems to be gone from today's high tech industry culture, although at the individual and work group level the humor and fun are still there, as many of the tales told in posts to EELife attest.

Psychologists tell us that a sense of humor is essential to sanity, so the disappearance of playfulness at higher levels in corporations, the loss of willingness to not take themselves too seriously, is troubling. Sure, the U.S. has two wars going on and is on the brink of a third. We're dealing with terrorists and revolutions and a potential oil crisis. And we are just now coming out of serious recession.

But things weren't much different then. Throughout the period I am talking about we had various serious issues facing the nation: The Vietnam conflict. Violent demonstrations. Race riots. At least two serious recessions. Inflation. And the U.S. was on the edge of losing its edge in semiconductor ICs to the Japanese.

In spite of these troubling conditions corporations felt secure enough to risk being goofy once in a while. Now, they do not seem to have any humor left in their obsessive search for profitability.

In terms of maturity, those were the days of the industry's adolescence. So maybe it is a matter of age. Now the industry is in middle age and upper management seems to have lost its spirit for such sanity-preserving pranks.

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also site leader of iApplianceweb and a partner in the TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Call him at 602-288-7257 or send an email to .

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