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Edward Keonjian: The High-IQ, Armenian-American Forrest Gump of Microelectronics, Part 5

By 1963, Edward Keonjian had earned a PhD in electrical (radio) communications in the USSR, survived World War II and the siege of Leningrad, escaped a Nazi slave labor camp with his family, emigrated to the US, learned English, worked menial jobs until he could re-establish himself as an electrical engineer, pioneered transistor applications and co-authored the first book on that topic at General Electric during the earliest days of the solid-state revolution, and managed the development of a transistorized missile guidance computer for early US ICBMs at American Bosch Arma. While visiting potential component suppliers for the missile guidance computer during the last years of the 1950s, Keonjian made many important connections and managed to light fires under the early IC developers at Fairchild Semiconductor and Texas Instruments by convincing them that there was a ready military market for their integrated circuits, if they’d only produce them.

As a direct result of these connections, Keonjian edited and published the first definitive book on microelectronics, aptly titled Microelectronics: Design, Theory, and Fabrication. The book is a time capsule from the year 1963. More than one million copies of the book have been sold, and it was translated into six languages. (My used copy of this book came from NASA’s Langley Research Center, originally purchased on November 22, 1963.)

Today, we see the term “microelectronics” as a synonym for “integrated circuits.” That was not the case in 1963. Of the book’s six chapters, only one discusses integrated circuits. Gordon Moore, who was Director of Research and Development at Fairchild Semiconductor, wrote the entire chapter. Keonjian wrote Chapter 1, which is a very short chapter devoted to “Nomenclature, Definition, and Classification.”  In this chapter, Keonjian writes:

“It should first be made clear what the term microelectronics implies since the name appears in many forms – microminiaturization, integrated electronics, microsystems electronics, molecular electronics, etc., and since the term is in itself somewhat misleading. In this book, ‘Microelectronics encompasses the entire body of electronic art which is connected with, or applied to, the realization of electronic circuits, subsystems, or entire systems from extremely small electronic parts (devices).’”

From the book’s organization, it’s clear that Keonjian retained his hybrid-module mindset even as late as 1963. The book’s other device-oriented chapters discuss discrete component parts, thin-film hybrid circuits, and functional devices including miniature components such as quartz crystals, resonators, ultrasonic delay lines (used extensively as memory devices before the advent of semiconductor RAM), piezoelectric sensors, and PNPN switching devices, a favorite of William Shockley. Notably, there’s no mention of molecular electronics, which was developed at Westinghouse (see “The Semiconductor Company from Another World: The Siliconix Story, Part 3 – Molecular Electronics”). Perhaps it was clear that this work had hit a dead end by the time this book was published in 1963.

Keonjian continued in his book’s introductory chapter:

“However, the primary interest in microelectronics stems not from the fact that small size can be achieved, but from the much more important fact that the techniques used should ultimately lead to low cost, high reliability, and, in some cases, improved performance.”

Clearly, at this early stage in their development, integrated circuits had not yet proved their worth or their reliability.

Microelectronics: Design, Theory, and Fabrication seems to have resulted from the various companies that Keonjian visited and the people he met due to his work at American Bosch Arma. The company readily supported this sort of outreach, and Keonjian was soon chairing EIA (Electronic Industries Association) committees relating to transistor standardization, including reliability standards such as MIL-STD-883. He also started to travel abroad.

In 1960, American Bosch Arma sent Keonjian to an IEC meeting in New Delhi. While there, he connected with some Japanese representatives from Fujitsu. As a result of that meeting, Keonjian snagged a consulting contract with Fujitsu. It became a long-term side hustle, allowing Keonjian and his wife to visit Japan regularly. In 1961, Keonjian’s autobiography describes a stay in a Paris hotel and how a noisy guest in the next room drew Keonjian to the adjacent hotel room. He knocked on the door to ask for quiet and perhaps punch the guy in the nose. Keonjian recognized the noisy neighbor as the famous space scientist Theodore von Kármán, who was director of AGARD, NATO’s Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development. He was loud because he was hard of hearing. Instead of punching him, Keonjian and his wife breakfasted with him the next morning, and, within a month, Keonjian was attending an AGARD meeting as an observer. By the following year, he started serving his first of several three-year terms as AGARD’s US representative.

Shortly after his book Microelectronics: Design, Theory, and Fabrication appeared in 1963, American Bosch Arma lost its major military contracts and started laying off most of its engineers, including Keonjian. With his numerous industry connections, Keonjian quickly snagged an engineering management position at Grumman and soon became head of Grumman’s Failure Analysis Laboratory, where he worked with NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong to identify and overcome reliability challenges associated with Project Apollo. Ever true to form, Keonjian’s comments about his layoff at American Bosch Arma ended up in a Wall Street Journal article, which was then included in the US Congressional Record at the request of Senator William Fulbright.

Like American Bosch Arma, Grumman also encouraged Keonjian’s extracurricular activities. He retained his positions as chair on EIA standardization committees and as a representative to AGARD. These activities took Keonjian all over the world. When Grumman’s Project Apollo contracts wound down around 1972, the company started curtailing its electronics activities. Keonjian decided to take early retirement so that he could pursue other interests. In Keonjian’s case, this was not a euphemism. His phone soon rang and he was recruited by a New York employment agency to explain the “Russian soul” to a diplomat headed for Moscow.

At first, Keonjian refused the job because it wasn’t in his field of microelectronics, as he explained to the recruiter. However, the recruiter persisted, saying that she had it on good authority that Keonjian was an expert in “Russian soul.” Eventually, she persuaded Keonjian to accept the job. He brushed up on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and other famous Russian authors, reading the original Russian versions of their works. Then he created a lesson plan and delivered a week’s worth of training on the assigned topic to the diplomat.

Keonjian returned to the recruiting agency to pick up his paycheck the following week, where he patiently explained that the “Russian soul” was not his specialty. He was a world-famous microelectronics engineer. After he described his background in detail, the agency recruiter picked up her phone, dialed the chief of personnel at the United Nations (UN), and asked, “Are you still looking for a microelectronics specialist?” Two weeks later, Keonjian headed to India on behalf of the UN.

When that assignment ended, Keonjian went to Egypt on his second assignment with the UN. When his UN job expired, Keonjian received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to continue teaching electronics in Egypt at the University of Cairo as a visiting professor. After his NSF grant ran out, Keonjian returned to New York.

Keonjian’s wife Virginia had passed away in 1969, before he’d retired from Grumman, so his international adventures for the UN and NSF had all been as a widower. He met his second wife, Maria, in the 1980s and they eventually married. By 1993, old age and arthritis prompted Keonjian and his second wife to seek a warmer climate. They found and retired to Green Valley, Arizona, situated between Tucson and the Mexico border. Keonjian soon became an adjunct professor at the nearby University of Arizona in Tucson, and he later became a Distinguished Professor in Residence. Keonjian published his autobiography in 1997 and then died two years later. In 2009, on the centennial of Keonjian’s birth, the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering established the Edward and Maria Keonjian Distinguished Professorship in Microelectronics, funded by a million-dollar endowment from Keonjian and his wife Maria.

Edward Keonjian had quite an effect on electronics. Some references even call him the “Father of Microelectronics.” Certainly, that case can be made, because Keonjian clearly influenced the course of electronics and spread his knowledge far and wide through his books and his university postings. He traveled broadly and, after his experiences during World War II, had the knack of being in the right place, at the right time, and meeting the right people throughout his 90 years.

 

References

Edward Keonjian, Survived to Tell, Sunstone Press, 1997

Edward Keonjian, Microelectronics: Design, Theory, and Fabrication, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1963

Keonjian Distinguished Professorship Honors Life and Work of ‘Father of Microelectronics’

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