In her recent column, Kathleen Gallagher pitches the idea of a semiconductor fabrication facility, or “fab,” in the Wisconsin Valley technology park. It makes sense. The Racine site is shovel ready and largely vacant due to Foxconn’s stalled plans. Gallagher lays out national security, economic development and national and local public policy justifications for such a project.
But having a vibrant presence in semiconductors makes sense for another reason: It would be a giant step toward realigning Milwaukee with its history as a global leader in industrial innovation.
In the book, “The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee,” Thomas Fehring chronicles a remarkable century of breakthroughs, ranging from the world’s first commercial typewriter in the 1860s to the casings for the Space Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters in 1981. As an “industrial archeologist” and the immediate past chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers history and heritage committee, Fehring knows historically significant industrial achievements when he sees them. “Magnificent Machines” describes more than 150 engineering breakthroughs that placed Milwaukee at the center of a commercial revolution.
But the conveyor belt of innovation jammed in the mid-1900s. The end of Milwaukee’s industrial pioneer phase is summed up in the story of one seminal invention that got away — the semiconductor.
By the mid-1950s, its creator, Jack Kilby, was a 10-year veteran at Milwaukee-based Centralab, where he applied leading-edge technology of transistors to hearing aid and TV set parts. On May 16, 1957, he attended a lecture at Marquette University given by Nobel laureate John Bardeen. Here’s the headline from the Milwaukee Journal’s review of that talk: “Two Inch Box Could Work TV, Bardeen Claims.” A year later, Kilby left for Texas Instruments, where within weeks he helped develop the world’s first microchip.
The semiconductor was simultaneously invented by a second person, Robert Noyce, who was employed at California startup Fairchild Semiconductor. The burgeoning power of the trend toward industrial miniaturization is represented by what happened to San Jose. When Fairchild set up shop there in 1957, the area consisted of “mile after mile of fruit orchards.” Today, it is called Silicon Valley.
In 1958, Milwaukee interests could hardly be blamed for failing to recognize the potential — the semiconductor did not exist. The same could not be said a generation later. A Jan. 8, 1981, Milwaukee Journal article notes that Milwaukee had contributed to the country’s “age of largeness much as Silicon Valley, Calif., now pioneers in microelectronics, contributing to the age of smallness.”
Or how about the ceremony that took place 20 years later? In 2001, the picture shows the now Nobel laureate Jack Kilby receiving the equivalent of the keys to the city from a collection of Milwaukee dignitaries.
It was a nice gesture, but what if Milwaukee had gone further and actually joined the digital revolution? Even if it took yet another generation to bear fruit, any reasonable effort would now bask in the bright lights of another technology boom.
In 1981, and again, in 2001, Milwaukee got caught looking. Here in 2021, it is time for Milwaukee, to, at least, take a swing. As Gallagher points out, the ball is teed up for a consortium of venture capitalists and opportunistic politicians. In addition to a global semiconductor shortage, which Intel recently identified as a years-long phenomenon, funding sources are wide and deep.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate deepened the well by passing a bipartisan bill that would increase financing for “technology and manufacturing.” In an article on the measure, The New York Times cited the book, “Jump-Starting America,” which argues for more geographical diversity in research and development spending. The book identifies Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Dallas, Tampa, Rochester and Tucson as cities that have the schools, companies and infrastructure to become innovation hubs. At this point, Milwaukee is out of the conversation.
But Milwaukee has earned a place at the table. With the stakes high, spending is prompted primarily by concerns over “China’s commitment to innovation and investment in technology,” according to the Times report.
Milwaukee has what China lacks, a long history as an innovation capital, which, we believe, is a byproduct of a native affinity for the creation of leading-edge industrial products. The culture that produced Milwaukee’s golden era is still in place. The metro area still generally ranks well in income per capita, and Milwaukee trails none other than San Jose in per capita employment at companies that “make and design things.”
Milwaukee must focus more fully on the “age of smallness.” It has been more than 60 years since Bardeen made his “claim” at Marquette University, and still the road to security and prosperity is paved with semiconductors. Nothing could be more integral to a robust post-pandemic Milwaukee than a new semiconductor manufacturing facility that would be central to a new era of innovation and growth.
Thomas Fehring of Whitefish Bay is currently working on “Chronicles of Mechanical Engineering,” which will be published this month by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Peter Kendall is a former Milwaukeean. He is currently helping to organize the Pitch Pit, a multipurpose communications forum in the new Marquette University School of Business.