Jorijn van Duijn has studied the history of ASM International over six years, relying upon interviews and Arthur del Prado’s personal archive. In the capacity of PhD candidate, he’s affiliated with Rijksmuseum Boerhaave and Maastricht University.

24 October 2019

After stumbling into Dean Knapic and his promising silicon business, Arthur del Prado joined a burgeoning but auspicious industry.

The origins of Arthur del Prado’s career – and thus ASM International’s roots – reside in a burgeoning Silicon Valley. Like many other Dutch citizens emigrating abroad since the late 1940s, young Arthur sought his fortunes in the New World. The bright young man joined the prestigious Harvard Business School but he didn’t earn a degree. Joined by his wife, he was eager to make his fortune in the United States and if Harvard didn’t prove to be his way to move ahead, he would find another way.

After arriving in Northern California, on the other side of the American continent, Del Prado was soon struck by the hustle and bustle there in the late 1950s. This triggered his entrepreneurial spirit. Although the start-up scene would mature in Silicon Valley only gradually, over the following decades, the innovative, optimistic and enthusiastic mentality could be felt already. On his way to San Francisco, while hanging out in the Bay Area, Del Prado crossed paths with an individual named Dean Knapic in the fall of 1957. This encounter was surely an unexpected but defining moment in his life and, subsequently, in the history of ASMI.

Arthur del Prado Harvard Yearbook 1957
A young Arthur del Prado. Credit: Harvard Yearbook 1957

A cloak of magical thinking

The events that occurred in Silicon Valley in 1957 have been extensively discussed and studied, and these involve some of the most illustrious entrepreneurs of the twentieth century. Most of the stories center around the co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley (1910-1989), and the group of eight engineers, among which Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, that left Shockley’s company to found their own semiconductor manufacturer called Fairchild Semiconductors in 1957. Later in their careers, these eight engineers – nicknamed by Shockley as the ‘Traitorous Eight’ – would be involved in the proliferation of high-tech start-ups in the Bay Area, such as Intel, Signetics and National Semiconductor.

The role of the venturous migrant Dean Dinko Knapic (1921–1993) in the disintegration of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, however, has been discussed much less so far. Shockley alienated Knapic in a similar way as he did the eight founders of Fairchild. The inventor was notoriously suspicious, unable to trust his engineers. It wasn’t easy to work for this man, to put it mildly. Shockley’s winning the Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor, in 1956, hardly seemed to temper his behavior. It was actually his management style that motivated his engineers to start their own enterprises in the fall of 1957.

The relationship between Shockley and Knapic revolved around the crucial technology of creating pure silicon crystal rod through so-called silicon crystal puller technology. It determined the proper functioning of a semiconductor device. Shockley had, in fact, been keenly aware of the strategic role of silicon and its manufacturing process. Intimate knowledge of the process was very valuable. To this end, he had hired three former Western Electric employees: Dean Knapic, Julius Blank and Eugene Kleiner (the latter two co-founded Fairchild). Being Shockley’s third employee, the Yugoslavia-born engineer Knapic became responsible for production and later also for administration.

In early 1957, the relationship between Shockley and Knapic deteriorated after the former had called the latter a “pathological liar”. Shockley believed that Knapic had falsified his résumé. To keep up appearances, Knapic did sometimes brush up his accomplishments. Shockley had his employee investigated by a psychological testing company but this didn’t provide substantial proof for his suspicions. According to the report, Knapic was a very typical European refugee, surrounding himself with a cloak of magical thinking tending to give an air of unreality. Needless to say, the relationship between Shockley and him never recovered from this.

William Shockley Smoot Horsley and Dean Knapic
William Shockley, Smoot Horsley and Dean Knapic at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in the late 1950s.

Something new in the industry

Following the example of the other eight, Knapic left Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to start his own venture in December 1957. With his new operation, he intended to capitalize on his newly acquired knowledge of silicon crystal pulling. He succeeded in attracting an investor by the name of Norsworthy Industry, originally from Texas. The company, named Knapic Electro-Physics, was established in Palo Alto, California.

Through his intimate experience with silicon and relying upon Shockley’s insight, Knapic knew that the market would turn toward silicon sooner or later. Knapic Electro-Physics’ single crystal was grown by melting polysilicon crystals and pulling monocrystalline rods by means of the Czochralski process out of this molten silicon. This process had been around since 1916 but was applied in semiconductor manufacturing for the first time around 1948 at Bell Labs.

In the early semiconductor industry, Knapic Electro-Physics stood out by offering monocrystalline silicon. It was something new, as most of the semiconductor manufacturing operations created their semiconductor crystals – foremost germanium – in-house. Being the first merchant manufacturer of silicon crystal rods, Knapic tried to convince semiconductor manufacturers of the benefits of the material. His arguments were supported by the growing governmental procurement for the Cold War and the Space Race.

Indeed, the favorable tide for silicon ensured a healthy start for Knapic Electro-Physics. By buying from Knapic, semiconductor manufacturers could access state-of-the-art silicon, without having to invest in a new operation and familiarize the manufacturing process of the crystals. This pioneering merchant semiconductor material manufacturer Knapic Electro-Physics prepared the ground for ASMI.

Knapic Electro Physics silicon puller
The pioneering merchant semiconductor material manufacturer Knapic Electro-Physics prepared the ground for ASM International.

Return to the Netherlands

The way the 27-year-old Arthur del Prado stumbled upon Dean Knapic, after the latter had just founded his company, remains hidden in a veil of mystery. The two men, however, got along well immediately. One can only guess about their mutual appeal. Meeting Del Prado, it might very well be that Knapic recognized something of himself in this fearless, recently married young Dutchman. Perhaps this spark of recognition convinced him to take the tall, slightly tinted bright and energetic man under his wing.

His association with Knapic resulted in Del Prado’s dispatch to the Netherlands. In the capacity of “European Marketing Manager” for Knapic Electro-Physics, it was up to him to explore the Dutch and Western European markets. In the spring of 1958, Del Prado wrote to a family member: “I will try to do some business in a selection of Western European countries. The product is a quite new invention, and the company is the only one in the USA capable of producing it in an efficient and qualitative way. If the European market is open for this product and if we succeed in selling a reasonable volume, I will be responsible for the international representations.”

While his stay in the United States was nearing its end, Del Prado was eager to bring his belief and confidence in this new innovative environment to the Netherlands. He realized his lack of proper education in semiconductor technology. As he humbly wrote in the same letter about his – in retrospect rather remarkable – apprehension of his chances in the industry: “Although I am not very sure whether I will continue in this electronic industry, it is certain that these semiconductor developments are about to replace the vacuum tubes in many ways. This makes the industry a very promising one to work in. The know-how required cannot be mastered very easily, which is a disadvantage obviously, if you did not study the technology.”

On 28 June 1958, Del Prado returned to the Netherlands, as he recalled, “with silicon in one hand and 500 dollars in the other.” After the contingency of stumbling into Dean Knapic and his promising silicon business, the would-be founder of ASMI joined a burgeoning but auspicious industry. It was the start of an illustrious career in semiconductor technology.

This is an excerpt from the PhD dissertation entitled “Fortunes of high-tech: a history of innovation at ASM International, 1958-2008” by Jorijn van Duijn, which will appear at Techwatch Books late November.

Edited by Nieke Roos